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       Contempt, p.11

           Alberto Moravia
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  AS I HAVE already mentioned, Emilia had not had a good education: she had attended only the first elementary school and then, for a few years, the normal school; then she had broken off her studies and had learned to do typing and shorthand, and at sixteen was already employed in a lawyer’s office. She came, it is true, of what is called a good family—that is, of a family which in the past had been in easy circumstances, having owned property in the neighborhood of Rome. But her grandfather had dissipated his heritage in unsuccessful commercial speculations, and her father, up to the day of his death, had been merely a minor official in the Ministry of Finance. So she had grown up in poverty, and, as regards her education and manner of thinking, could almost be described as belonging to the working class; and, like many women of that class, she seemed to have nothing to fall back upon except her common sense, which was so solid as to appear sometimes like stupidity or, to say the least, narrowness of ideas. Yet by virtue solely of this common sense she sometimes succeeded, in a wholly unexpected and, to me, mysterious, manner, in formulating comments and appreciations that were extremely acute; just as, indeed, happens with people of the working class, who are closer to nature than others, and whose consciousness is not obscured by any convention or prejudice. Certain things she said merely because she had thought them over seriously, with sincerity and candor, and indeed her words had the unmistakable ring of truth. But, since she was not aware of her own candor, she felt no complacency about it; thus in a way confirming, by her very modesty, the genuineness of her judgment.

  And so, that day, when she cried out: “I despise you,” I was immediately convinced that these words, which in the mouth of another woman might have meant nothing, when pronounced by her meant exactly what they said: she really did despise me and now there was nothing more to be done. Even if I had known nothing of Emilia’s character, the tone in which she had uttered the phrase would have left me in no doubt: it was the tone of the virgin word that springs directly from the thing itself and pronounced by someone who had perhaps never spoken that word before, and who, urged on by necessity, had fished it up from the ancestral depths of the language, without searching for it, almost involuntarily. So indeed may a peasant, among a number of mutilated, worn-out, dialect expressions, sometimes utter a remark that sparkles with crystal-clear moral wisdom—a remark which in a different mouth might not be surprising, but which, in his, is astonishing and appears almost unbelievable. “I despise you.” These three words, I noticed with bitterness, held the same absolutely genuine tone as those other words, so very different, which she had spoken to me the first time she had confessed her love: “I love you very much.”

  I was so sure of the sincerity and truth of those three words that, once I was alone in my study, I started walking up and down without thinking of anything, my hands trembling, my eyes distraught, not knowing what to do. Emilia’s words seemed to be penetrating more deeply every minute into my sensibility, like three thorns, with sharp and increasing pain; but beyond this pain, of which I was acutely conscious, I was incapable of understanding anything. The thing that made me suffer most, of course, was the knowledge that I was not merely not loved but actually despised; and yet, utterly unable as I was to discover any reason at all, even the slightest, for this contempt, I had a violent feeling of injustice and, at the same time, a fear that, in reality, there was no injustice about it, and that the contempt had an objective foundation of which I was myself unaware, though to others it was quite obvious. I had a respectable opinion of myself, mixed with just a dash of pity, as of a man who is not too fortunate, a man upon whom Fate has not smiled as she ought to have done; but not in any way contemptible, quite the contrary. And now, behold, those words of Emilia’s were completely upsetting this idea, were making me suspect, for the first time, that I did not know myself or judge myself as I really was, and that I had always flattered myself beyond all truth.

  Finally I went into the bathroom and put my head under the tap, and the jet of cold water did me good; my brain had seemed to be red hot, just as though Emilia’s words had set fire to it, discovering in it a combustible quality hitherto unknown. I combed my hair, washed my face, re-tied my tie, then went back into the living-room. But the sight of the table ready laid in the window embrasure aroused in me a feeling of rebellion: it was impossible that we should sit down as we did every day and eat together, in that room which still echoed with the words that had so deeply affected me. At that very moment Emilia opened the door and looked in, her face now recomposed into its usual serene, placid expression. Without looking at her I said: “I don’t want to dine at home this evening...Tell the maid we’re going out, and then get dressed at once...we’ll go and dine out somewhere...”

  She answered, in some surprise: “Why, it’s all ready...the whole thing will have to be thrown away.”

  A sudden rage swept over me, and I shouted: “That’s enough. Throw away anything you like, but go and get dressed because we’re going out.” Still I did not look at her, but I heard her murmur: “What a way to behave!” Then she closed the door again.

  A few minutes later we left the house. In the narrow street, flanked on both sides by modern buildings like our own, with facades full of balconies and verandas, among all the big, expensive motor-cars, my own small, utilitarian car awaited us—a recent acquisition which, like the flat, had still, to a great extent, to be paid for out of the earnings of future film-scripts. I had only had it a few months, and I still had that feeling of slightly childish vanity which such a possession can at first inspire. But that evening, as we walked towards the car, side by side, not looking at each other, in silence and not touching each other, I could not help thinking: “This car, like the flat, represents the sacrifice of my ambitions...and that sacrifice has been in vain.” And in truth, just for a moment, I had a sharp sense of the contrast between the luxurious street in which everything looked new and expensive, our flat which looked down upon us from the third floor, the car that awaited us a few yards further on, and my own unhappiness, which made all these advantages appear useless and wearisome.

  When I had got into the car, I waited until Emilia was seated and then stretched out my arm to shut the door. Usually, in making this movement, I brushed against her knees, or, turning a little, gave her a light, quick kiss on the cheek. This time, however, almost spontaneously I avoided touching her. The door closed with a bang and for a moment we sat motionless and silent. Then Emilia asked: “Where are we going?” I thought for a few seconds and replied at random: “Let’s go to the Via Appia.”

  Slightly surprised, she said: “But it’s too early for the Via’ll be cold and there won’t be anyone there.”

  “Never mind...we shall be there.”

  She was silent, and I drove off quickly towards the Appian Way. Coming down from our own quarter, we crossed the center of the city and went out by the Via dei Trionfi and the Passeggiata Archeologica. We passed the ancient mossy walls, the gardens and vegetable-plots, the villas hidden in trees along the first part of the Appian Way. Then we came to the entrance to the Catacombs, lit by two feeble lamps. Emilia was right; it was still too early in the year for the Via Appia. In the restaurant with the archaeological name, when we came into the big sham-rustic room adorned with amphoras and broken columns, we found nothing but tables and a quantity of waiters. We were the only customers, and I could not help thinking that, in that chilly deserted room, surrounded by the tiresome solicitude of too many attendants, we should have no hope of solving the problem of our relationship—on the contrary. I remembered that it was in that very restaurant, two years before, at the time of our deepest love, that we had constantly dined; and all at once I understood why, amongst so many, I had chosen it, so dismal at that season of the year, and so forlorn.

  The waiter was standing, menu in hand, on one side, and on the other the wine-waiter was bowing, with the wine-list. I began ordering our dinner, making suggestions to Emilia, and bending fo
rward slightly towards her like an attentive, gallant husband. She kept her eyes lowered and answered without looking up, in monosyllables: “Yes, no, all right.” I also ordered a bottle of the choicest wine, although Emilia protested that she did not want to drink anything. “I’ll drink it,” I said. The wine-waiter gave me an understanding smile, and the two waiters went off together.

  I do not wish to give a description here of our dinner in all its details but merely to depict my own state of mind, a state of mind which was entirely new to me that evening but which was thenceforth to become normal in my relations with Emilia. They say that, if we manage to live without too great an effort, it is entirely owing to the automatism which makes us unconscious of a great part of our movements. In order to take one single step, it seems, we displace an infinite number of muscles, and yet, thanks to this automatism, we are unaware of it. The same thing happens in our relations with other people. As long as I believed myself to be loved by Emilia, a kind of happy automatism had presided over our relations; and only the final completion of any course of conduct on my part had been illuminated by the light of consciousness, all the rest remaining in the obscurity of affectionate and unnoticed habit. But now that the illusion of love had faded, I discovered myself to be conscious of every one of my actions, even the smallest. I offered her something to drink, I passed her the salt, I looked at her, I stopped looking at her: each gesture was accompanied by a painful, dull, impotent, exasperated consciousness. I felt myself completely shackled, completely numbed, completely paralyzed; at each act, I found myself wondering: am I doing right, am I doing wrong? I had, in fact, lost all confidence. With complete strangers one can always hope to regain it. But with Emilia, it was an experience of the past, a thing defunct: I could have no hope whatever.

  And so, between us, there was a silence that was only broken from time to time by some quite unimportant remark: “Will you have some wine? Will you have some bread? Some more meat?” I should like to describe the intimate quality of this silence because it was that evening that it was established for the first time between us, never to leave us again. It was, then, a silence that was intolerable because perfectly negative, a silence caused by the suppression of all the things I wanted to say and felt incapable of saying. To describe it as a hostile silence would be incorrect. In reality there was no hostility between us, at least not on my side; merely impotence. I was conscious of wanting to speak, of having many things to say, and was at the same time conscious that there could now be no question of words, and that I should now be incapable of finding the right tone to adopt. With this conviction in my mind, I remained silent, not with the relaxed, serene sensation of one who feels no need to speak, but rather with the constraint of one who is bursting with things to say and is conscious of it, and runs up against this consciousness all the time, as against the iron bars of a prison. But there was a further complication: I felt that this silence, intolerable as it was, was nevertheless, for me, the most favorable condition possible. And that if I broke it, even in the most cautious, the most affectionate manner, I should provoke discussions even more intolerable, if possible, than the silence itself.

  But I was not yet accustomed to keeping silent. We ate our first course, and then our second, still without speaking. At the fruit, I was unable to hold out any longer, and I asked: “Why are you so quiet?”

  She answered at once: “Because I’ve nothing to say.”

  She seemed neither sad nor hostile; and these words, too, held the accent of truth. I went on, in a didactic tone: “A short time ago you said things that would need hours of explanation.”

  Still in the same sincere tone, she said: “Forget those things. Try and imagine I never said them.”

  I asked hopefully: “Why should I forget them? I should forget them only if I knew for certain that they are not true...if they were just words that escaped you in a moment of anger.”

  This time she said nothing. And again I hoped. Perhaps it was true: it was as a reaction from my violence that she had said she despised me. Cautiously, I insisted: “Now confess, those horrible things you said to me today were not true...and you said them because at that moment you thought you hated me and you wanted to hurt me.”

  She looked at me and was again silent. I thought I detected—or was I wrong?—a faint glistening of tears in her big dark eyes. Encouraged, I put out my hand and took hers as it lay on the tablecloth, saying: “Emilia...they weren’t true, then?”

  But now she pulled away her hand with unusual violence, drawing back not only her arm but, it seemed to me, her whole body. “They were true.”

  I was struck by her accent of complete, albeit disconsolate, sincerity as she answered. It was as though she were aware that, at that moment, a lie would have put everything to rights again, anyhow for some time, at least in appearance; and clearly, just for a second, she had been tempted to tell such a lie. Then, on reflection, she had rejected the idea. I felt a new and sharper stab of pain, and, bending my head, murmured through my clenched teeth: “But do you realize there are certain things that can’t be said to anyone, just like that, without any justification...not to anyone, least of all to your own husband?”

  She said nothing; all she did was to gaze at me, with apprehension almost; and indeed, my face must have been distorted with rage. At last she replied: “You asked for it and I told you.”

  “But it’s up to you to explain.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “You’ve got to explain why...why you despise me.”

  “That I shall never tell you...not even if I were on the point of death.”

  I was struck by her unusually resolute tone. But my surprise did not last long. I was filled with a fury which now permitted no time for reflection. “Tell me,” I insisted, and again I seized her hand, but this time in a far from caressing manner, “tell me...why do you despise me?”

  “I’ve already said I shall never tell you.”

  “Tell me...if not, I shall hurt you.” Beside myself with rage, I twisted her fingers. She looked at me in surprise for a moment, then screwed up her mouth in pain; and, immediately afterwards, the contempt of which hitherto she had merely spoken, showed itself clearly in her expression. “Stop it,” she said roughly; “so you want to hurt me now, as well.” I noticed this “as well,” in which there appeared to be an allusion to other severities that I wished to inflict upon her, and was left breathless. “Stop it...aren’t you ashamed of yourself? The waiters are watching us.”

  “Tell me why you despise me.”

  “Don’t be a fool; leave me alone.”

  “Tell me why you despise me.”

  “Ow!” She wrenched her fingers away with a violent jerk that knocked a tumbler off the table. There was a sound of broken glass, and she jumped up and walked away towards the door, saying loudly: “I’m going to wait for you in the car... while you pay the bill.”

  She went out, and I was left sitting motionless where I was, humiliated, not so much from shame (it was true, as she had said, that all those idle waiters had been watching us the whole time and had not missed a single word or gesture of our quarrel) as by the strangeness of her behavior towards me. Never before had she spoken to me in that tone, never before had she abused me. The words “as well” continued, moreover, to echo in my ears like a new and unpleasant enigma that had to be solved, amongst so many others: how and when had I inflicted those things upon her of which, with her “as well” she was now complaining? At last I summoned the waiter, paid the bill, and followed her out.

  Outside the restaurant, I found that the weather, which all day had been cloudy and uncertain, had turned to a thick drizzle. A little farther on, in the darkness of the open space, I could just see the figure of Emilia standing beside the car: I had locked the doors, and she was waiting there, patiently, in the rain. I said, in a shaky voice: “I’m sorry, I’d forgotten I had locked the car”; and heard her voice, quite quietly, answer: “Never’s not raining much.
Once again, at those forgiving words, hope of a reconciliation reawakened, crazily, in my heart: how was it possible to be filled with contempt, if one spoke in a voice so quiet, so kindly? I opened the door, got into the car, and she got in beside me. I started the engine, and said to her, in a voice that seemed to me, all of a sudden, strangely hilarious, almost jovial: “Well, Emilia, where would you like to go?”

  She answered without turning, looking straight ahead: “I don’t know...wherever you like.”

  Without waiting, I drove off. As I said, I now had a kind of jovial, carefree, hilarious feeling; it seemed almost as though, by turning the whole affair into a joke, by substituting lightness for seriousness and, frivolity for passion, I might succeed in solving the problem of my relations with Emilia. I do not know what it was that possessed me at that moment: perhaps desperation, like an over-potent wine, had gone to my head. I said, in an amused, deliberate playful tone: “Let’s go wherever luck takes us...we’ll just see what happens.”

  I felt absurdly awkward as I said these words; rather like a cripple trying to demonstrate a dance-step. But Emilia did not speak, and I abandoned myself to this new humor of mine, which I imagined to be an inexhaustible stream but which very soon turned out to be no more than a thin and timid trickle. I was now driving along the Via Appia, of whose cypresses and brick ruins and white marble statues and Roman pavement, with its big, irregular paving-stones, I caught a glimpse now and then by the light of the headlamps on the road in front, through the thousand glistening threads of rain. I went straight on for a little and then said, in a tone of false elation: “Let’s forget, for once, who we are, and imagine we’re two young students looking for a quiet corner, far away from indiscreet eyes, where they can make love in peace.”

  Still she said nothing, and I, encouraged by her silence, went a short distance farther along the road and then brought the car suddenly to a stop. It was pouring with rain now; the windshield-wipers, going backwards and forwards on the glass, did not move fast enough to sweep away the streams of water. “We’re two young students,” I said again in an uncertain voice; “I’m called Mario and you’re Maria...and we’ve at last found a quiet place though it’s rather wet. But inside the car we’re all right...Give me a kiss.” As I said this, with the decisiveness of a drunken man, I put my arm around her shoulders and tried to kiss her.

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