Contempt, p.13Alberto Moravia
“At once...that is, in about ten days...as soon as the director comes back from Paris.”
I was wondering now, as I held her against me and felt the roundness and softness of her breast against mine, whether I dared take the risk of kissing her. Actually, she was taking no sort of share in our embrace, but merely submitting to it. All the same, I deceived myself into thinking that this passivity was not entirely the result of indifference, and that it contained some element of interest. Then I heard her ask, still in the same comforted yet reluctant tone: “Where shall we stay, in Capri? In an hotel?”
I answered joyfully, thinking to give her pleasure: “No, we shan’t go to an hotel...hotels are so tiresome. I’ve something better than an hotel; Battista is lending us his villa...We shall be able to use the villa the whole time I’m working at the script.”
I was immediately aware—as I had feared a few days before, when I had too hastily accepted Battista’s offer—that Emilia, for some reason of her own, did not like this plan. In fact, she at once freed herself from my embrace and, drawing away to one corner of the divan, repeated: “Battista’s villa...and you’ve already accepted?”
“I thought you would be pleased,” said I, trying to justify myself; “a villa is far better than an hotel.”
“You’ve already accepted?”
“Yes, I thought I was doing right.”
“And we shall be there with the director?”
“No, Rheingold is going to live at the hotel.”
“Will Battista come there?”
“Battista?” I replied, vaguely surprised by this question. “I suppose he may come now and then...but only for a short time, a week-end, a day or two...just to see how our work is going.”
This time she said nothing: but she fumbled in the pocket of her dressing-gown, took out her handkerchief and blew her nose. As she did so, she pushed aside her dressing-gown, which fell wide open almost up to her waist, uncovering her belly and her legs. She kept her legs tightly crossed, as if from modesty, but the white, youthful, plump belly flowed over on to the crossed, muscular thighs with a generous innocence that seemed more powerful than any rebuff. Looking at her then, as she seemed to be unconsciously offering herself, I felt a violent desire, of unparalleled spontaneity, which for a moment gave me the illusion that I might approach and possess her.
But I knew that, however great my longing might be, I would not do so; and all I did was to watch her, almost furtively, while she blew her nose—as though I were afraid of being discovered in the act of looking at her, and put to shame. As soon as she had finished, however, she remarked that I had now reached the point of looking secretly at my wife’s nudity, with the excitement with which one looks at forbidden things, like a boy peeping through a crack into a bath house; and with a feeling of violent annoyance I put out my hand and pulled down the edge of her dressing-gown over her legs. She did not appear to be aware of my gesture but, putting her handkerchief back into her pocket, said in a voice that was now perfectly calm: “I’ll come to Capri, then...but on one condition—”
“Don’t talk to me of conditions. I don’t want to hear anything,” I cried, unexpectedly; “all right, we’ll go...but I don’t want to hear anything...and now go away, go away.” There must have been some kind of fury in my voice, for she immediately got up, as though she were frightened, and hurriedly left the room.
THE DAY ARRIVED when we were to leave for Capri. Battista had decided to accompany us to the island, to do us the honors of his house, as he himself expressed it; and that morning, when we came down into the street, we found the producer’s high-powered red motor-car standing beside my own unpretentious little machine. It was now the beginning of June, but the weather was still unsettled, cloudy and windy. Battista, wearing a leather wind-jacket and flannel trousers, was standing beside the car talking to Rheingold, who—like a good German, thinking of Italy as the land of sunshine—had dressed very lightly for the occasion, with a peaked cap of white cloth and a striped linen suit of colonial cut. Emilia and I came out of the house followed by the porter and the maid carrying our suitcases; the other two at once left the car and came to meet us.
“Well, how shall we arrange ourselves?” asked Battista, after we had greeted each other. Then, without waiting for an answer: “I suggest that Signora Molteni comes with me, in my car, and Rheingold with you, Molteni. Then you can begin talking about the film during the journey...Because,” he concluded with a smile, but in a serious voice, “the real work begins today...and I want to have the script in my hands in two months’ time.”
I glanced, automatically, at Emilia, and noticed on her face that curious look of disintegration of the features that I had observed on other occasions—the sign, in her, of perplexity and aversion. But I attached no importance to it; nor did I in any way connect this expression with Battista’s proposal, which was in any case quite reasonable. “Very good idea,” I said, forcing myself to appear cheerful, as the happy circumstance of this trip to the seaside seemed to demand. “Very good idea...Emilia will go with you and Rheingold with me...But I don’t promise to talk about the script.”
“I’m frightened of going fast,” began Emilia, “and you, in that car of yours—you always drive too fast...” But Battista, impulsively, took her by the arm, crying: “No need to be frightened with me. Besides, what are you frightened of? I’ve got my own skin to think about, too”; and as he spoke he almost dragged her off towards his own car. I saw Emilia look at me with a bewildered, questioning air, and wondered whether I ought not to insist on taking her with me. But I thought Battista might take offense; motoring was a passion with him and, to tell the truth, he drove extremely well; and so I again said nothing. Emilia made one more feeble objection: “But I should rather have gone in my husband’s car”; and Battista protested, facetiously: “Husband indeed! Why, you spend the whole day with your husband. Come on, or I shall be offended.” In the meantime they had reached the car. Battista opened the door, Emilia got in and sat down, Battista was walking round the car to get in, himself, on the other side...Watching them in a rather dreamy way, I gave a start as Rheingold’s voice said to me: “Are we ready, then?” I roused myself, got into my own car, and started the engine.
Behind me I heard the roar of Battista’s car as it started; then it passed us and went off swiftly down the hill. I had scarcely time to catch a glimpse, through the rear window, of the head and shoulders of Emilia and Battista side by side; then the car turned a corner and vanished.
Battista had suggested that we should talk about the script during our journey. The suggestion was superfluous: when we had traversed the whole length of the city and I had turned into the Formia road at the moderate speed allowed by my small car, Rheingold, who so far had been silent, began: “Now tell me honestly, Molteni, you were afraid, that day in Battista’s office, weren’t you, that you were going to be forced into making a kolossal film?” He stressed the German word with a smile.
“I’m still afraid of it,” I answered absent-mindedly, “partly because that’s the way things are going at present in the Italian studios.”
“Well, you’re not to be afraid. We,” he said, assuming all at once a hard, authoritative tone, “we are going to make a film that is psychological and only psychological...as indeed I said to you that day. I, my dear Molteni, am not accustomed to doing what the producers want, but what I want. On the set, it is I who am the master, and no one else. Otherwise I don’t make the film. Quite simple, isn’t it?”
I answered that it was, indeed, quite simple; and I spoke in a tone of sincere pleasure, because this assertion of autonomy made me hope that I would easily come to such terms with Rheingold as would result in the work being less tedious than usual. After a moment’s silence, Rheingold resumed: “And now I should like to explain some of my ideas to you. I presume you can drive and listen at the same time?”
“Of course,” I said; but at that same moment, as I turned very sl
“Don’t bother about that,” I said, rather annoyed. “It was quite impossible for me to have seen those oxen. Go on: I’m listening.”
Rheingold needed no persuading. “You see, Molteni,” he went on, “I’ve agreed to go to Capri...and in fact we shall certainly shoot the exteriors of the film in the Bay of Naples. But that will be only the background; for the rest we might as well stay in Rome. The drama of Ulysses, in fact, is not the drama of a sailor, or an explorer, or a war veteran. It is the drama of Everyman. The myth of Ulysses conceals the true story of a certain type of man.”
I remarked, at random: “All the Greek myths depict human dramas—dramas without time or place, eternal.”
“Exactly. All the Greek myths, in other words, are figurative allegories of human life...Now, what ought we moderns to do in order to resuscitate such ancient and obscure myths? First of all, to discover the significance which they can have for us of the modern world, and then to fathom that significance as deeply as we can, to interpret it, to illustrate it...but in a live, independent way, without allowing ourselves to be crushed by the masterpieces that Greek literature has drawn from these myths. Let us take an example. No doubt you know O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, from which the film was also taken?”
“Yes, certainly I know it.”
“Well, O’Neill too understood this very simple truth—that the ancient myths have to be interpreted in a modern manner, including the Oresteia. But I don’t care for Mourning Becomes Electra—do you know why? Because O’Neill allowed himself to be intimidated by Aeschylus. He thought, quite rightly, that the Orestes myth could be interpreted psychoanalytically; but, intimidated by the subject, he made too literal a transcription of the myth. Like a good schoolboy writing out an exercise in a book with ruled paper—you can see the lines, Molteni.” I heard Rheingold laughing to himself, pleased with his own criticism of O’Neill.
We were driving across the Roman campagna now, not far from the sea, between low hills yellow with ripe corn, with an occasional leafy tree here and there. We must be far behind Battista, I thought; the road, as far as the eye could reach, was empty—empty in its long, straight tracts, empty at every bend. At that moment Battista would be driving, far ahead, at sixty miles an hour, perhaps more than thirty miles in front of us. I heard Rheingold’s voice begin again: “If O’Neill understood this truth, that the Greek myths must be interpreted in a modern manner, according to the latest psychological discoveries, he ought not to have respected his subject too much, but should have torn it to pieces, turned it inside out, put new life into it. This he did not do, and his Mourning Becomes Electra is tedious and cold...it’s a school exercise.”
“I think it’s rather fine,” I objected.
Rheingold disregarded the interruption and went on: “We’ve now got to do with the Odyssey what O’Neill did not wish, or did not know how, to do with the Oresteia...that is, open it up, as a body is opened up on the dissecting table, examine its internal mechanism, take it to pieces and then put it together again according to our modern requirements.”
I was wondering what Rheingold was driving at. I said, rather distractedly: “The mechanism of the Odyssey is well known: the contrast between the longing for home and family and fatherland, and the innumerable obstacles which stand in the way of a quick return to fatherland and home and family. Probably every prisoner of war, every war veteran who for some reason is detained far away from his own country after the end of a war, is, in his own way, a little Ulysses.”
Rheingold gave a laugh which sounded like the clucking of a hen. “I was expecting that: the veteran, the prisoner. No, no, none of that, Molteni. You’re going no farther than the externals, the facts. In that way the Odyssey film really does run the risk of being nothing more than a ‘kolossal’ film, an adventure film, as Battista would like it to be. But Battista is the producer and it is right that he should think in that way. Not you, however, Molteni, you who are an intellectual. Molteni, you’re intelligent and you must use your brain. Try to use it.”
“I am using it,” I said, rather irritated; “that’s exactly what I am doing.”
“No, you’re not using it. Take a good look and think carefully and observe one fact before all others: the story of Ulysses is the story of Ulysses’ relations with his wife.”
I said nothing, this time. Rheingold continued: “What is the thing that strikes us most in the Odyssey? It is the slowness of Ulysses’ return, the fact that he takes ten years to get home...and that, during those ten years, in spite of his much-proclaimed love for Penelope, he does, in reality, betray her every time he gets a chance...Homer tells us that Ulysses thought only of Penelope, that the one thing he desired was to be reunited with Penelope...but ought we to believe him, Molteni?”
“If we don’t believe Homer,” I said, more or less jokingly, “I really don’t see who we are to believe.”
“Why, ourselves, men of the modern world, who know how to see right through the myth. Molteni, after reading and re-reading the Odyssey several times, I’ve come to the conclusion that, really and truly—and of course without realizing it—Ulysses did not want to get home, did not want to be reunited to Penelope...that’s my conclusion, Molteni.”
I said nothing, and again Rheingold, emboldened by my silence, resumed. “Ulysses, in reality, is a man who is afraid of returning to his wife—and we shall see later why—and, with this fear in his heart, seeks, in his subconscious mind, to create obstacles in his own path...That famous spirit of adventure is really no more than an unconscious desire to slow down his journey, frittering away the time in adventures that delay him and take him out of his way...It is not Scylla and Charybdis, Calypso and the Phaeacians, Polyphemus, Circe and the gods who are opposed to the return of Ulysses; it is Ulysses’ own subconscious which, step by step, creates good excuses for him to stay a year here, two years there, and so on.”
So this was what Rheingold was driving at—this classic Freudian interpretation of the Odyssey. I was only surprised that I had not thought of it before: Rheingold was a German, he had started his career in Berlin, at the time of Freud’s first successes, he had spent some time in the United States where psychoanalysis was held in great esteem; it was only natural that he should seek to apply its methods even to that hero who was, par excellence, devoid of complexes, Ulysses. I said dryly: “Very ingenious. But I still don’t see how...”
“One moment, Molteni, one moment. It is therefore clear, in the light of my interpretation—which is the only correct one in accordance with the latest discoveries of modern psychology—that the Odyssey is merely the inside story of what I may call a conjugal repugnance. This conjugal repugnance is debated and examined at great length by Ulysses, and it is only after ten years of struggle with himself that he finally succeeds in overcoming it and dominating it by accepting precisely the situation that had caused it. In other words, Ulysses, for ten years, invents for himself every possible kind of delay, makes every possible kind of excuse for not returning to the conjugal roof...he actually thinks, more than once, of binding himself to another woman. At last, however, he does succeed in gaining command over himself, and he goes home. And this return home of Ulysses amounts precisely to an acceptance of the situation owing to which he went away and did not want to come back.”
“What situation?” I asked, genuinely stupid this time. “Didn’t Ulysses go away simply in order to take part in the Trojan War?”
“Externals, externals,” repeated Rheingold with impatience. “But as to the situation at Ithaca before Ulysses’ departure to the war, the suitors and all the rest of it, I will speak about that when I explain the reasons for which Ulysses did not wish to return to Ithaca a
“Yes, a little.”
“Well, Freud will serve us as a guide through this interior landscape of Ulysses, not Berard with his maps and his philology which explains nothing...and, instead of the Mediterranean, we shall explore the mind of Ulysses—or rather, his subconscious.”
Vaguely irritated, I said, with perhaps excessive violence: “What’s the point of going to Capri, then, for a boudoir drama? We might just as well work in a furnished room in a modern quarter of Rome.”
As I spoke, I saw Rheingold throw me a glance of mingled surprise and resentment; he then laughed disagreeably, as though he preferred to make a joke of a discussion that threatened to end badly. “We’d better resume this conversation, calmly, at Capri,” he said, and then went on: “You can’t drive and discuss the Odyssey with me both at the same time, Molteni. Now you had better devote yourself to driving, and I, for my part, will admire this extremely beautiful landscape.”
I did not dare contradict him; and for almost an hour we went on in silence. We passed through the region of the ancient Pontine Marshes, with the thick, sluggish water of the canal on our right and the green expanse of the reclaimed plain on our left; we passed through Cisterna; we came to Terracina. After this latter town, the road started to run close beside the sea, being sheltered on its other side by rocky, sun-scorched mountains of moderate height. The sea was not calm; it could be seen beyond the yellow and black dunes, and was of an opaque green, a color that one guessed to be produced by the large quantity of sand stirred up from the bottom by a recent storm. Massive waves rose languidly, and their white water, like soapsuds, invaded the brief stretch of beach. Farther off, the sea was in movement but there were no waves, and the green color changed into an almost violet blue, over which, driven by the wind, appearing and disappearing, white curls of foam ran swiftly. The same capricious, lively disorder reigned in the sky: there were white clouds traveling in all directions; vast blue spaces swept by radiant, blinding light; sea-birds turning and swooping and hovering, as though taking care to follow, with their flight, the gusts and eddies of the wind. I drove with my eyes upon this seascape; and, all of a sudden, as if in reaction against the remorse aroused in me by Rheingold’s surprised, offended look when I described his interpretation of the Odyssey as a “boudoir drama,” there flashed into my mind the thought that, after all, I had not been wrong: upon that bright-colored sea, beneath that luminous sky, along that deserted shore, it would not have been difficult to imagine the black ships of Ulysses outlined between one wave and another, sailing towards the then virgin and unknown lands of the Mediterranean. And Homer had wished to represent a sea just like this, beneath a similar sky, along a similar coast, with characters that resembled this landscape and had about them its ancient simplicity, its agreeable moderation. Everything was here, and there was nothing else. And now Rheingold was wanting to make this bright and luminous world, enlivened by the winds, glowing with sunshine, populated by quick-witted, lively beings, into a kind of dark, visceral recess, bereft of color and form, sunless, airless: the subconscious mind of Ulysses. And so the Odyssey was no longer that marvelous adventure, the discovery of the Mediterranean, in humanity’s fantastic infancy, but had become the interior drama of a modern man entangled in the contradictions of a psychosis. I said to myself, as a kind of conclusion to these reflections, that, in a sense, I could hardly have happened upon a more unfortunate script: to the usual tendency of the cinema to change everything for the worse which had no need to be changed at all, there was added, in this case, the particular gloom, entirely mechanical and abstract in quality, of psychoanalysis—applied, into the bargain, to a work of art as untrammeled and concrete as the Odyssey. We were passing along, at that moment, very close to the sea: beside the road were the green sprays of an exuberant vineyard planted almost in the sand, and beyond it a brief tract of shore, black with debris, upon which the big waves broke heavily from time to time. I pulled up suddenly and said dryly: “I simply must stretch my legs.”
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes