The Empty Canvas, p.1Alberto Moravia
The Empty Canvas
Translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson
La noia first published 1961
This translation first published by Seeker & Warburg 1961 Published in Penguin Books 1965
Copyright © Valentino Bompiani, 1961 Translation copyright © Seeker & Warburg, 1961
I remember perfectly well how it was that I stopped painting. One evening, after I had been for eight hours on end in my studio, painting for five or ten minutes at a time and then throwing myself down on the divan and lying there flat, staring up at the ceiling, for an hour or two—all of a sudden, as though at last, after so many feeble attempts, I had had a genuine inspiration, I stubbed out my last cigarette in an ashtray already full of dead cigarette-ends, leapt cat-like from the armchair into which I had sunk, seized hold of a small palette-knife which I sometimes used for scraping off colours and slashed repeatedly at the canvas on which I had been painting, not content until I had reduced it to ribbons. Then from a corner of the room I took a blank canvas of the same size, threw away the torn canvas and placed the new one on the easel. Immediately afterwards, however, I realized that the whole of my—shall I say creative?—energy had been vented completely in my furious, and fundamentally rational, gesture of destruction. I had been working on that canvas for the last two months, doggedly and without pause; slashing it to ribbons with a knife was equivalent, fundamentally, to finishing it—in a negative manner, perhaps, as regards external results, which in any case had little interest for me, but positively, in relation to my own inspiration. In point of fact, my destruction of the canvas meant that I had reached the conclusion of a long discourse which I had been holding with myself for goodness knows how long. It meant that I had at last planted my foot on solid ground. And so the empty canvas that now stood on the easel was not just an ordinary canvas which had not yet been used; it was a particular canvas that I had placed on the easel at the termination of a long job of work. In effect, I thought, seeking to console myself against the sense of catastrophe that was throttling me, this canvas, similar in appearance to so many other canvases but for me fraught with meaning and consequence, could be the starting-point from which I could now begin all over again, in complete freedom; just as if those ten years of painting had not gone by and I myself were still twenty-six, as I was when I had left my mother's house and had gone to live in the studio in Via Margutta, in order to devote myself, in complete leisure, to painting. However, on the other hand, it might well be—in fact, it was highly probable—that the empty canvas now flaunting itself on the easel was the outward sign of a development no less intimate and no less necessary but entirely negative, a development which might lead me, by imperceptible stages, to complete impotence. And that this second hypothesis might well be the true one appeared to be borne out by the fact that slowly but surely boredom had come to be the companion of my work during the last six months, until finally it had brought it to a full stop on that afternoon when I slashed my canvas to tatters; it was rather like a deposit of lime in a spring which, in the end, blocks the pipes and brings the flow of water to a complete standstill.
I think it may perhaps be opportune, at this point, for me to say a few words on the subject of boredom, a feeling which I shall have reason to mention frequently in the course of these pages. Now, however far back into the years I probe in memory, I recall having suffered always from boredom. But it is important to understand what I mean by this word. For many people boredom is the opposite of amusement; and amusement means distraction, forgetfulness. For me, on the contrary, boredom is not the opposite of amusement; I might even go so far as to say that in certain of its aspects it actually resembles amusement inasmuch as it in fact gives rise to distraction and forgetfulness, even if of a very special type. Boredom, to me, consists, to be precise, in a kind of insufficiency or inadequacy or lack of reality. Reality, when I am bored, has always had the same disconcerting effect upon me as (to make use of a metaphor) a too short blanket has upon a sleeping man, on a winter night: he pulls it down over his feet and his chest gets cold, then he pulls it up on to his chest and his feet get cold; and so he never succeeds in falling properly asleep. Or again (to make use of a different comparison) my boredom resembles a repeated and mysterious interruption of the electric current inside a house: at one moment everything is clear and obvious—here are armchairs, over there are sofas, beyond are cupboards, side-tables, pictures, curtains, carpets, windows, doors; a moment later there is nothing but darkness and an empty void. Yet again (a third comparison) my boredom might be described as a malady affecting external objects and consisting of a withering process, of an almost instantaneous loss of vitality—just as though one saw a flower change in a few seconds, by a series of extremely rapid transformations, from a bud to decay and dust.
The feeling of boredom originates, for me, in a sense of the absurdity of a reality which, as I have said, is insufficient, or anyhow unable, to convince me of its own effective existence. It may happen, for instance, that I am looking with some degree of attentiveness at a tumbler. As long as I say to myself that this tumbler is a glass or metal vessel made for the purpose of putting liquid into it and carrying it to one's lips without upsetting it, as long, that is, as I am able to represent the tumbler to myself in a convincing manner, so long shall I feel that I have some sort of a relationship with it, a relationship close enough to make me believe in its existence and also, on a subordinate level, in my own. But once the tumbler withers away and loses its vitality in the manner I have described, or, in other words, reveals itself to me as something foreign, something with which I have no relationship, once it appears to me as an absurd object—then from that very absurdity springs boredom, which when all is said and done (let it now be stated) is simply a kind of incommunicability and the incapacity to disengage oneself from it. But this boredom, in turn, would not cause me to suffer so much if I did not know that, although I myself have no relationship with the tumbler, such a relationship might perhaps be possible: that is, because the tumbler exists in some unknown paradise in which objects do not for one moment cease to be objects. For me, therefore, boredom is not only the inability to escape from myself but is also the consciousness that, theoretically, I might be able to disengage myself from it thanks to a miracle of some sort.
I mentioned that I have always been bored; let me add that it is only in fairly recent times that I have succeeded in understanding, with a sufficient measure of clarity, what boredom really is. During childhood, and later too, during adolescence and first youth, I suffered from boredom without explaining it to myself, like someone who suffers from continual headaches but never makes up his mind to consult a doctor. Especially when I was a child, boredom used to assume forms that were entirely obscure both to myself and to other people, forms which I was unable to explain and which others, not infrequently my mother, attributed to upsets in my health or other similar causes—just as the crossness of tiny babies is often attributed to their cutting teeth. It would happen, during those years, that I suddenly stopped playing and remained for hours on end motionless, as though in astonishment: in reality overcome by the uneasiness inspired in me by what I have called the withering of objects, or in other words the obscure consciousness that between myself and external things there was no relationship. If, at such times, my mother came into the room and, seeing me dumb and inert and pale with distress, asked what was wrong with me, I answered invariably: 'I'm bored'
I will pass quickly over the disasters caused by my boredom during adolescence. At that period it was my worst trial at school and was attributed to so-called 'weaknesses', in other words to a congenital incapacity in one subject or another; and I myself accepted this explanation for lack of any other more valid one. I now know for certain, however, that the bad marks which fell upon me thick and fast at the end of each scholastic year were due to one cause only—boredom. Indeed I felt acutely, with my customary deep distress, that I had no relationship whatever with all that enormous jumble of Athenian kings and Roman emperors, of South American rivers, and mountains in Asia, of Dante's hendecasyllables and Virgil's hexameters, of algebraical processes and chemical formulae. All these unending pieces of information did not concern me, or concerned me only in order that I might establish the fact of their fundamental absurdity. But, as I have said, I did not boast, either to myself or to others, about this purely negative feeling that I experienced; in fact I told myself that I ought not to experience it, and I suffered from it. I remember that this suffering, even then, inspired in me a desire both to define and to explain it. But I was a mere boy, with all the pedantry and ambition of a boy. The result, therefore, was a project for a universal history 'according to boredom', of which, however, I wrote only the first few pages. My universal history according to boredom was based on a very simple idea: the mainspring of it was neither progress, nor biological evolution, nor economic development, nor any of the other ideas usually brought forward by historians of various schools; it was simply boredom. Burning with enthusiasm at this magnificent discovery, I went right to the root of the matter. In the beginning, therefore, was boredom, commonly called chaos. God, bored with boredom, created the earth, the sky, the waters, the animals, the plants, Adam and Eve; and the latter, bored, in their turn, in Paradise, ate the forbidden fruit. God became bored with them and drove them out of Eden; Cain, bored with Abel, killed him; Noah, bored to tears, invented wine; God, once again bored with mankind, destroyed the world by means of the Flood; but this, in turn, bored Him to such an extent that he brought back fine weather again. And so on. The great empires—Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman—rose out of boredom and fell again in boredom; the boredom of paganism gave rise to Christianity; that of Catholicism, to Protestantism; the boredom of Europe caused the discovery of America; the boredom of feudalism kindled the French Revolution; and that of capitalism, the revolution in Russia. All these fine discoveries were noted down by me in a kind of summary; then I began, with great enthusiasm, to write the true and proper history. I do not remember exactly, but I don't think I went any further than the highly detailed description of the atrocious boredom from which Adam and Eve suffered in the Garden of Eden, and how, precisely because of this boredom, they committed their mortal sin. Then, myself growing bored with the whole project, I abandoned it.
Actually I suffered from boredom between the ages of ten and twenty to a perhaps greater extent than in any other period of my life. I was born in 1920; thus the time of my adolescence was spent beneath the black banner of Fascism, that is, of a political régime which had been erected into a system by the incommunicability both of the dictator towards the masses and of the individual citizens between each other and towards the dictator. Boredom, which is the lafck of a relationship with external things, was in the very air one breathed during the period of Fascism; and to this social boredom must be added the boredom of dull sexual urgency which, as is liable to happen at that age, prevented me from making contact with the very women whom I believed could afford me relief. But my boredom saved me from the civil war which shortly afterwards was to devastate Italy for two years. This was how it happened. I was in the army, in a division stationed in Rome; and as soon as the armistice was declared, I took off my uniform and went home. Then a proclamation was made bidding all soldiers rejoin their units, on pain of death. My mother, characteristically obsequious to the authorities, who at that moment were Fascist and German, advised me to put on my uniform again and report to headquarters. She was anxious for my safety; but in reality she was urging me towards deportation and probably death in a Nazi concentration camp—as happened to many of my comrades in arms. It was boredom, and boredom alone—that is, the impossibility of establishing contact of any kind between myself and the proclamation, between myself and my uniform, between myself and the Fascists—it was the boredom from which I had suffered for twenty years, and which now caused the great empire of the fasces and the swastika to be entirely non-existent in my eyes, which saved me. Despite my mother's prayers, I took refuge in the country, in the villa of a friend, and there I spent the whole period of the civil war, painting—which is as good a way of passing the time as any other. It was then that I became a painter; that is, I hoped to be able to re-establish contact with reality, once and for all, by means of artistic expression. In fact, in the first sense of relief brought about by my enthusiasm for painting, I did indeed almost convince myself that my boredom hitherto had been nothing more than the boredom of an artist ignorant of his vocation. I was wrong; but for some time I deluded myself with the idea that I had found a remedy.
At the end of the war I went back to live with my mother who, in the meantime, had acquired a big villa on the Via Appia. I had hoped, as I said, that painting had overcome boredom once and for all; but I realized almost at once that this was not so. I started suffering from boredom again in spite of my painting; in fact, since boredom automatically interrupted painting, I became conscious of the intensity and frequency of my old trouble with greater precision than before I had started painting. Thus the problem of my boredom presented itself again, unchanged; and then I started asking myself what could be the reasons for it, and, by a process of elimination, arrived at the conclusion that perhaps I was bored because I was rich and that if I were poor I would not be bored. This idea was not as clear in my mind, at the time, as it appears now on paper; it was a question, not so much of an idea, as of a kind of haunting suspicion that there was a connexion, obscure but indisputable, between boredom and money. I do not wish to linger too long over this exceedingly disagreeable period of my life. Since I was bored, and when bored could not paint, I began to hate, with all my soul, both my mother's villa and the comforts I enjoyed there; it was to the villa I attributed my boredom and the consequent impossibility of painting, and I longed to leave it. But since, as I said, it was a question of a mere suspicion, I could not bring myself to say clearly the one thing I ought to have said to my mother: I don't want to live with you because you are rich, and being rich bores me and boredom prevents me from painting. Instead, I sought instinctively to make myself intolerable, in such a way as to hint at, and to some extent to force, my departure from the villa. I recall those days as days of unending ill-humour, of obstinate hostility, of determined non-compliance, of almost morbid antipath
My sojourn at the villa and my consequent state of mind would have probably been far more prolonged if, luckily, my mother had not come to believe that she recognized, in my boredom, a feeling analogous to that which had ruined her relations with my father. The moment has now come to make a brief mention of him too, if for no other reason than that he preceded me along the path of boredom.
My father, then, was a born vagabond—from what I have been able to make out, putting two and two together; in other words, one of those men who, when at home, fall gradually silent, lose their appetite and in fact refuse to go on living, rather like certain birds which cannot endure to be shut up in a cage; but who, on the other hand, once they find themselves on the deck of a ship or in a railway carriage, recover all their vitality. He was tall, athletic, fair-haired and blue-eyed, like me; but I am not good-looking because I have gone prematurely bald, and my face, generally, is grey and gloomy; he, however, was a handsome man—at least, if one can believe the boasts of my mother, who insisted on marrying him willy-nilly, in spite of the fact that he kept telling her all the time that he did not love her and that he would leave her as soon as he could. I saw him only a few times, because he was always travelling, and the last time I saw him his fair hair was almost grey and his boyish face was all furrowed with fine, deep wrinkles; but he was still wearing the care free butterfly bow-ties and check suits of his youth. He came and went: that is, he ran away from my mother with whom he was bored and then came back again, probably in order to get a new supply of money so as to run off again, for he himself had not a penny, although, in theory, he was in the 'import and export' business. Finally he came back no more. A violent gust of wind, in the sea off Japan, overturned a ferry-boat with a hundred passengers on board, and my father was drowned with the rest of them. What he was doing in Japan, whether he was there in connexion with 'imports and exports' or for some other purpose, I have never known. According to my mother, who loved scientific or seemingly scientific definitions, my father suffered from 'dromomania', in other words the passion for movement. It was perhaps this mania, she used to remark thoughtfully, that explained his passion for stamps—those small, brightly-coloured evidences of the vastness and variety of the world—of which he had gathered together a fine collection, still preserved by her, as well as his talent for geography, the only subject he had seriously studied at school. As far as I could understand, my mother looked upon my father's 'dromomania' as a purely individual and therefore fundamentally insignificant characteristic; I, on the contrary, could not help feeling a kind of fraternal pity for that pathetic, faded figure, more and more faded as time went on, in whom I seemed to recognize—anyhow in respect of his relationship with my mother—certain features in common with myself. But these were external features, as I realized afterwards, on thinking the matter over: my father, it was true, had also suffered from boredom; but in him this suffering had been dissipated by happy wanderings in one country after another; his boredom, in other words, was the ordinary kind of boredom, in the sense in which the word is normally used, the boredom that asks no more than to be relieved by new and unusual sensations. My father, in fact, had believed in the reality of the world—in the world of geography, at any rate; whereas I could not manage to believe in the reality even of a tumbler.
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