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The empty canvas, p.11
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       The Empty Canvas, p.11

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  'D'you think so?'

  'Yes, you give that impression.'

  'I think so too, on the whole.'

  'Then how d'you account for the passion, or rather the kind of passion, that Balestrieri had for you?'

  'I don't know.'

  'Try and think for a moment.'

  'Really I don't know. Obviously he was made like that.'

  'How d'you mean?'

  'That he couldn't love except in that way.'

  'That isn't true. For years I saw Balestrieri continually changing women. What happened, happened only with you.'

  There was a long silence, and then, in a tone of sincerity and goodwill, she said: 'Ask me a precise question, and I'll answer you.'

  'What d'you mean by a precise question?'

  'A question about a physical thing, a material thing. You always ask me questions about feelings, about what people think or don't think, and I don't know what to answer.'

  'A material thing? Well then, tell me: in your opinion, did Balestrieri know that his relations with you were injuring his health?'

  'Yes, he did know.'

  'What did he say?'

  'He said: Some day or other this is going to kill me. Then I told him that he ought to be careful, but he answered that it didn't matter.'

  'That it didn't matter?'

  'Yes.' Then, with an air of vagueness and as if she were remembering with an effort, she went on: 'In fact, now I come to think of it, I remember one day when we were making love he said to me: "Go on, go on, go on, I want you to go on without taking any notice of me, even if I protest, even if I feel ill, I want you to make me die, yes, really to make me die.'"

  'And what about you?'

  'I didn't pay much attention to his words at the time. He used to say so many things. But you've made me think of them.'

  'So you think he loved you because you made him die, I mean because for him you were a means he made use of to kill himself?'

  'I don't know. I've never thought about it.'

  And so I was continually getting nearer to the truth, or anyhow thinking that I was getting nearer. Nevertheless I always remained dissatisfied. The idea that Cecilia was an ordinary girl like so many others and that Balestrieri had seen something in her that did not exist and had died as a result of it, this idea, as a summing-up of the matter, was rather tempting; apart from anything else, it explained why I myself, unlike Balestrieri, had not managed to feel anything for Cecilia beyond a simple physical attraction. And yet, I don't know why, this explanation failed to satisfy me. It seemed that, by explaining everything, it explained nothing; and anyhow it left unsolved the problem of Cecilia, that is, the problem of the contrast between her actual simplicity and lack of interest and the passion she had been able to inspire.

  By this time, however, I realized that I was beginning to be bored with Cecilia, to find myself once more in the state of isolation and detachment in which I had been just before I met her. To say that I was bored with Cecilia may perhaps suggest the idea that she gave me no enjoyment, that is, that she herself was boring. But, as I have already said elsewhere, mine was not a case of boredom in the sense normally given to that word. In reality it was not that Cecilia was boring, it was I who was bored, even though I knew in my heart that I might very well not be bored if, by some miracle, I could succeed in making my relationship with her more real, when on the contrary I felt it growing weaker and emptier every day.

  I became conscious of this change in our relationship chiefly because of the difference in my way of feeling, now and at the beginning, on the subject of physical love—which was, after all, the only possible kind of love between Cecilia and me. At the beginning it had been a very natural thing, inasmuch as I had felt that, in it, nature overcame herself and became human and even more than human; now, on the other hand, it struck me mainly by its lack of naturalness, as an act, in a sort of way, against nature, and therefore artificial and absurd. Walking, sitting, lying down, going upwards or downwards, all the actions of the body, in fact, now seemed to me to have a necessity of their own and therefore a naturalness; but copulation, on the contrary, seemed an extravagant exertion for which the human body was not made and to which it could not adapt itself without effort and fatigue. Everything, I felt, could be done easily, with grace and harmony—everything except copulation. The very conformation of the two organs, the female difficult of access, the male incapable of directing itself of its own accord towards its goal, like an arm or a leg, but requiring to be aided by the whole body, appeared to me indicative of the absurdity of the sexual act. From this sense of the absurdity of the physical relation to that of the absurdity of Cecilia herself was but a step. And so boredom, as usual, destroyed first my relationship with outside things and then the things themselves, rendering them empty and incomprehensible. But the new fact, this time, was that, in face of a Cecilia reduced to an object of absurdity, boredom—possibly owing to the sexual habit which I had formed and which I did not consider it necessary to break off, anyhow for the moment—did not merely fill me with coldness and indifference but went beyond these feelings, or rather this lack of feeling, and was transformed into cruelty.

  Cecilia, however, was not a glass but a person; or rather, although at the moment when I was bored with her she ceased to exist just like any other object, I nevertheless knew in my mind that she was a person. Now, just as the glass, at the moment when my boredom made it appear incomprehensible and absurd, sometimes inspired me with a violent desire to seize it and smash it and reduce it to fragments so as to have confirmation of its actual existence through destroying it, so, with more reason, when I was bored with Cecilia I was smitten with an impulse, if not positively to destroy her, at least to torment her and make her suffer. By tormenting her and making her suffer, in fact, it seemed to me that I might contrive to re-establish the relations that had been broken off by boredom; and little did it matter if I succeeded in this through cruelty instead of through love.

  I remember perfectly well how this cruelty showed itself for the first time. One afternoon Cecilia, after she had undressed, was coming over to the divan where I was awaiting her, lying down and also undressed, my eyes turned towards her. She was walking on tiptoe with her chest thrown forward and her shoulders and hips held slightly back, and on her face was the expectant, troubled, solemn expression of one who prepares to perform a familiar act which has been performed many times before and is yet, perhaps for that very reason, always new. I watched her as she came towards me and reflected that not merely did I not desire her (though I also knew that, if only in an automatic way, I should attain a sufficient degree of excitement to have intercourse with her) but that I could not even manage to look upon her as a thing that was in any kind of contact with me. Now while I was thinking of these things and she, on her side, had already come up to the divan and placed one knee upon it so as to lie down beside me, I suddenly noticed that the curtains were only half drawn across the big window. The white light of the sultry day worried me; besides, there were windows on the other side of the courtyard from which people could look into the studio if they wanted to. So I said, in a casual way; 'Look, d'you mind drawing the curtains?'

  'Oh, the curtains,' she said; and as usual, obediently, she turned away from me and, still walking on tiptoe, went to the window. Then, as I watched her going across the studio, with her strange, significantly shaped figure, half adolescent and half grown woman, I was suddenly seized, for the first time since I had met her, with an impulse of cruelty. It was an impulse which took me back in time to the years of my childhood, to the only occasion in my life when I had been consciously cruel. At that time I possessed a large tabby cat for which I had a great affection but with which, quite often, it happened that I grew bored, especially when I had gone through the few games and tests of intelligence of which the creature was capable. Boredom, in the end, gave me a feeling of cruelty which led, in turn, to the following game. I put on a plate a small quantity of little raw fish
of which I knew the cat was fond and put the plate in the corner of the room. Then I went and fetched the cat, and after allowing it to smell the fish, carried it to the opposite corner and let it go. The cat rushed immediately towards the plate, expressing its delight and greed with its whole body, from the tip of its tail to the tip of its nose; but I was ready, the moment it reached the middle of the room, to seize it like lightning by its neck and carry it back to its point of departure. I repeated this game, if I can so call it, over and over again, and each time the cat became slightly more aware that it was the victim of a mysterious misfortune and in consequence changed its behaviour. In its first bounds it had been violent, greedy, sure of itself; then it became more wary, as though it hoped, by pressing its body against the floor and moving its paws with caution, that it might escape my vigilance and perhaps make itself positively invisible; in the end, all the poor pussy did was to make a slight, tentative forward movement in the direction of the plate, an experiment, at the same time both cunning and melancholy, to assure itself without too much effort that I still persisted in my cruel intention. Then suddenly, everything changed: the cat spoke. What I mean is that, turning back its head and looking into my eyes, it gave vent to a long and very expressive mewing, at the same time both touching and reasonable, that seemed to say: 'Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this to me?' This mewing, so explicit and so eloquent, had the effect of making me instantly ashamed. I seem to remember that I even blushed. I took the cat in my arms, carried him over to the plate myself, and left him to eat his little fishes in peace.

  And now, when I saw Cecilia walking away docilely on tiptoe towards the window, it occurred to me to play the same cruel game with her as I had played with the cat. In her case too, it was to satisfy her appetite that she had come over to the divan; and she too, like the cat, had at that moment expressed her appetite—her perfectly natural and legitimate appetite—with her whole body, from her head to her feet. Now I was going to play with her as I had played with the cat; but this time I should be completely conscious of the true motive of the game, which was my intention to re-establish, through cruelty, my relationship with external things that had been broken off by boredom.

  Cecilia, in the meantime, had gone to the window and drawn the curtains and was now coming back to the divan again. Upon her face, which for a moment had worn the diligent expression of a young maidservant (even though she was naked) carrying out an order from her master, there was now, again, that primitive, ritual look, the apologetic, expectant prelude to love. Still walking on tiptoe, she circled round the easel, crossed the room, reached the divan and was on the point of climbing on to it. But I stopped her, saying: 'I'm sorry, but I can't bear to make love in front of an open door. Do please go and shut the bathroom door.'

  'How difficult you are!' she murmured. Nevertheless, docile as ever, off she went again across the studio. I saw her disappear into the shadow, a graceful ghost, with her spreading, curly brown hair, her slender, bony back, and, below her slim waist, the two pale, oblong mounds of her buttocks. She closed the door carefully and turned back, ghostly again in the half-darkness which made her eyes look larger and darker, her breasts heavier and browner, her groin deeper and blacker. This time I did not stop her when she placed her knee on the divan, but at the moment when she was laying herself down, a little out of breath, beside me. 'Forgive me once more,' I said, 'but do be kind enough to go and take the receiver off the telephone. Yesterday it rang just at the best moment. It's true I didn't go and answer it, but all the same that ringing got on my nerves.'

  She looked at me for an instant, saying: 'That's the third time,' in a quiet but not reproachful voice: then she got up and went to the table in the middle of the room to take off the receiver, standing there for a moment in profile against the light. Then she came back again towards the divan, her face assuming, for the third time, its apologetic, expectant expression. I waited until she was close to me and exclaimed with pretended innocence: 'How absent-minded I am! Cecilia, my love, do me one more favour: go and fetch my cigarette-case from the window-sill. . . . You know I like to smoke afterwards. Please!'

  She said nothing, but threw me a long, astonished glance. She obeyed, however, for the fourth time; off she went again to the window, fetched the cigarettes and came back to me, still ready and willing to give herself to me.

  'There are your cigarettes,' she said in a cheerfully impatient manner, throwing them in my face and at the same time making a movement to hurl herself upon me. But I stopped her in the act. 'What about the matches?' I asked.

  'Ugh!' Another walk across the studio, still on tiptoe; as she came back, however, her ritual expression seemed to be now slightly falsified by a shadow of doubt and mortification. She threw the matches in my face as she had done with the cigarettes, but, instead of climbing on to the divan, she stopped at a little distance from it and asked: 'Tell me quickly whether there's anything else you want, while I'm standing up.'

  'Yes,' I lied, 'I would like you to go into the kitchen and turn off the gas tap. I have an impression I may have left it on.'

  'And then what?'

  'And then, yes, there is one other thing I wanted to ask you to do: go to the entrance door and disconnect the bell. Someone might come and disturb us.'

  I expected her to obey; instead of which I saw her sit down deliberately on a chair, hugging one leg in her arms; and curled up like that, in an attitude of distress and doubt, she gazed at me in silence. Surprised, I asked her: 'What's the matter, why don't you go and do what I asked you?'

  She did not immediately answer. Finally she asked cautiously: 'Just those two things, or others as well?'

  'Only those two things.'

  She shook herself, with what seemed like a faint sigh, and then once more made her way across the studio, going first into the kitchen and then to the front door. When she came back I noticed that her face still retained its look of expectancy and desire, and I wondered whether I should ever see her again if I went on with my cruel game. This was love, I said to myself, the only love of which she was capable, and I was on the point of killing it. But when she had lain down beside me, I could not refrain from saying: 'I'm sorry, but you'll have to get up again. I want an ash-tray; I don't like throwing cigarette-ash on the floor.'

  This time she did the exact contrary of what the cat had done, in those far-off days of my childhood. The cat had spoken, in a human, reasonable, and I might almost say Christian way; the pain I had inflicted upon it had raised it to human status. Cecilia, faced with the same cruelty, made a gesture of animal-like humility, at the same time both mute and touching. Instead of getting up as I had commanded, she nestled still more closely against me, hiding her face between my shoulder and ear, entwining her arms and legs about me and as it were imploring me, in silence, like an animal that cannot speak, not to go on tormenting her, whatever the reason for it might be or the satisfaction I might derive from it. This sad, humiliated, suppliant embrace, just as instinctively animal-like as the cat's mewing, many years before, had been human and reasonable, produced the same effect. Suddenly I was ashamed of my cruelty, which was seeking an evidence of reality in the suffering of another person; and, without persisting any longer in my ridiculous requests, I returned her embrace. Immediately I felt her body, which seemed to have been waiting only for this signal, clasp itself to mine in a different manner, no longer imploring now, but eager: and she dealt me the usual strong, impatient blow with her groin, as if to notify me that she was ready. And thus, I thought to myself with more amusement than boredom, her meal was beginning.

  But there remained with me, from that day onwards, not merely a distaste for cruelty, as a significant symptom of my lack of contact with Cecilia, but at the same time a fear of relapsing, in the future, into greater and more irreparable and more shameful cruelties. This had been but a preliminary skirmish; I realized that, if boredom and its effects persisted in my relationship with Cecilia, I might really slip into the habit
of sadism, for it was precisely towards that that I was being pushed by my need to establish any kind of contact with her. I ought not to be deceived by the fact that Cecilia's touching, animal-like embrace had made me break off my cruel game. In reality I had ceased tormenting her, not so much because I had felt pity for her and shame at my own behaviour, as because, with that embrace, she had admitted that she was suffering, and it was precisely that admission that I had wished to force from her, thus driving away my boredom through the spectacle of her suffering. But along that road, with my own sensibility steadily hardening, I might, as I have said, reach the point of true sadism, of the transformation of my boredom into a vicious mechanism. Boredom inspired me with fear but not with disgust, because it had something frank and essential about it. Sadism, on the contrary, was repugnant to me, especially on account of its hypocrisy (the sadist always claims that he is punishing his victim whereas actually he is seeking enjoyment through the sufferings he inflicts under the pretext of punishment), and also on account of the excitement it brought me, all the more impure because it was chaste, or at least pretended to be, until the moment when, putting aside all hypocrisy, it vented itself in sexual intercourse, thus revealing itself as nothing more than a kind of drug.

  Luckily, however, I am not cruel; that first episode was also the last. I thought, on the other hand, that I ought to part from Cecilia before it was too late. I was sorry to do so, not so much on my own account, because I deceived myself into thinking I did not love her, as on hers, for I imagined that, in her own silent and inarticulate way, she was in love. Why I was so certain that I did not love Cecilia and that I was loved by her, it would be hard to say. As far as I was concerned, the fact that I could make use of her, that is, of her body, as much as I wished, every time that I wished, and in every way that I wished, gave me the illusion that I possessed her absolutely, that I had so complete a relationship with her as to make any further continuation of it useless; and this had convinced me that I did not love her. Similarly I was convinced that Cecilia loved me because I always found her so complaisant, so yielding, so docile. Owing to a very common form of male vanity, I attributed this complaisance to love; whereas I ought to have been put on my guard, to say the least, by the inarticulate and almost automatic quality of this love. Thus I felt that, while it would be a relief to me to part from her, Cecilia, on the other hand, would suffer; and for that reason I postponed the separation from day to day, as I wanted to find an excuse that would make it as little galling and painful to her as possible.

 
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