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       Contempt, p.17

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  “What?”

  I imagined myself to be very calm, very lucid, very reasonable; and yet at the same time a faint feeling of uneasiness warned me that there was a certain falsity—a worse than falsity, an absurdity—in my calm, in my lucidity, in my reasonableness. After all, I had seen her in Battista’s arms: and that alone was what should have mattered. I went on, nevertheless: “The suggestion I want to make to you is as follows: that you yourself should decide whether I am to do this script or not. I promise you that if you tell me not to do it, I’ll go and tell Battista so, first thing tomorrow morning—and we’ll leave Capri by the first boat.”

  She did not raise her head, but appeared to be meditating. “You’re very cunning,” she said at last.

  “Why?”

  “Because, if you regret it afterwards, you’ll always be able to say it was my fault!”

  “I shan’t say anything of the kind...considering it’s I myself who am asking you to decide.”

  She was now, obviously, reflecting upon the answer that she should give me. And I saw that her answer would provide an implicit corroboration of her feeling for me, whatever it might be. If she told me to do the script, it would mean that she now despised me to the point of considering that my work could continue, in spite of everything; if her answer, on the other hand, was in the negative, it would imply that she still retained some respect for me and did not want me to be dependent on her lover for my work. And so, after all, I came back again to the usual question: whether she despised me and why she despised me. At last she said: “These are things that one can’t allow other people to decide for one!”

  “But I’m asking you to decide.”

  “Then remember you insisted on my deciding,” she said all at once, with sudden solemnity.

  “Yes, I shall remember.”

  “Well, I think that, since you’ve taken on the job, you ought not to give it up. You yourself, in any case, have said that to me many times. Battista might be annoyed and never give you any more work. I think you should certainly do this job.”

  I thought of that kiss, and said, in an almost hostile manner: “Very well then. But don’t tell me later on that you gave me this advice because you’d realized that, really and truly, I wanted to do the job...like that day when I had to sign the contract. Let it be quite clear that I don’t want to do it.”

  “Ugh, you’ve exhausted me,” she said carelessly, getting up from the bed and going over to the wardrobe. “That’s my advice, anyhow...but of course you can do what you like...”

  She had reassumed her tone of contempt, thus confirming my suppositions. And quite suddenly I experienced the same pain that I had felt that first time in Rome, when she had flung her aversion in my face. I could not help exclaiming: “Emilia, why all this?...Why are we so hostile to each other?”

  She had opened the wardrobe and was looking at herself at the mirror on the door. She said, in an absent-minded way: “Well, well, it’s life, I suppose!”

  Her words took my breath away, leaving me rigid and silent. Emilia had never spoken to me in that way, with such indifference and apathy and in so conventional a phrase. I knew I could have reversed the situation again by telling her I had seen her with Battista, as she herself knew perfectly well; that, in asking her to decide for me about the film-script, I had simply wished to put her to the test—which was true; and that, in short, the question between her and me was still the same as ever. But I had not the courage, or rather, the strength, to say these things: I felt utterly tired, and quite unable to start all over again. So, instead, I said, almost timidly: “And what will you do all the time we’re in Capri, while I’m working on the film?”

  “Nothing special. I’ll go for walks...and swim, and sunbathe...the same as everyone does.”

  “All alone.”

  “Yes, all alone.”

  “Won’t you be bored, alone?”

  “I’m never bored. I’ve plenty of things to think about!”

  “Do you sometimes think about me?”

  “Yes, of course I do.”

  “And what do you think?” I too had risen, and had gone over to her and taken her hand.

  “We’ve talked about that so many times already.” She resisted my hold, yet without disengaging her hand.

  “Do you still think about me in the same way?”

  This time she pulled herself away from me and said brusquely: “Now listen, you’d better go to bed. I know there are certain things you don’t like, and indeed it’s quite natural. On the other hand, I can only repeat what I’ve said before. What’s the point of talking about them again?”

  “But I do want to talk about them again.”

  “Why? I should only have to say again all the things I’ve already said so many times. I haven’t changed my mind just because I’ve come to Capri: on the contrary.”

  “What do you mean by ‘on the contrary’?”

  “When I said ‘on the contrary,’ ” she explained rather confusedly, “I meant that I haven’t changed—that’s all.”

  “You still have the same...the same feeling about me, in fact? Isn’t that so?”

  Unexpectedly, and in an almost tearful voice, she protested. “Why do you torment me like this? Do you think it gives me any pleasure to say these things to you? I dislike them more than you do!”

  I was moved by the pain which I seemed to detect in her voice. Taking her hand again, I said: “Anyhow, I think a great deal of you...and I always shall,” I added, as though to make her see that I forgave her for her unfaithfulness, which indeed was true, “whatever happens.”

  She said nothing. She looked away, and seemed to be waiting. But at the same time I felt her trying to disengage her hand from mine, with a sly but persistent and obstinately hostile movement. And so I abruptly bade her good night and left the room. It was with a sharp renewal of pain that I heard the key, almost at once, being turned in the lock.

  17

  NEXT MORNING I rose early, and, without taking steps to find out where Battista and Emilia were, left—or rather, made my escape from—the house. After the night’s rest, the happenings of the previous day and, above all, my own behavior, appeared in an unpleasant light, as a series of absurdities which had been confronted in an equally absurd fashion; now I wanted to think calmly over what I ought to do, without compromising my own freedom of action by some hurried and irreparable decision. So I left the house, went back over the path I had traversed the evening before, and made my way to the hotel where Rheingold was staying. I inquired for him and was told he was in the garden. I followed; and at the far end of an avenue caught sight of the slender parapet of a summer-house bathed in the brilliant light of the calm, sun-filled sea and sky. A few chairs and a small table were arranged in front of the parapet, and as I appeared someone rose to his feet with a gesture of greeting. It was Rheingold, all dressed up like a naval captain, in a white cap with a gold anchor on it, a blue jacket with gold buttons, and white trousers. On the table was a tray with the remains of breakfast; also a portfolio and writing materials.

  Rheingold seemed extremely cheerful. He immediately asked me: “I say, Molteni—what d’you think of a morning like this?”

  “I think it’s an exquisitely beautiful morning.”

  “What would you say, Molteni,” he went on, taking me by the arm and turning with me towards the parapet, “what would you say to letting our work go hang, hiring a boat and rowing slowly all round the island? Don’t you think it would be better, infinitely better?”

  I answered him without conviction, thinking in my heart that an excursion of that kind in the company of Rheingold would lose a good deal of its charm. “Yes,” I said, “in a sense it would be better.”

  “You’ve said it, Molteni!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “In a sense...But in what sense? Not in the sense in which we understand life. For us life means duty—doesn’t it, Molteni? Duty, first and foremost...and so, Molteni, to work!” He left the parapet and sat down again
at the table; then, leaning towards me and looking into my eyes, he said, with a certain solemnity: “Sit down here, opposite me...this morning we’ll just talk. I have a great many things to say to you.”

  I sat down. Rheingold adjusted his cap over his eyes and resumed: “You will remember, Molteni, that I was explaining my interpretation of the Odyssey to you during our drive from Rome to Naples...but this explanation was interrupted by the appearance of Battista. Then, for the rest of the journey I was asleep, and so the explanation was postponed. You remember, Molteni?”

  “Yes, certainly I do.”

  “You will also remember that I gave you the key to the Odyssey—in this way: Ulysses takes ten years to return home because really, in his subconscious mind, he does not want to return.”

  “Yes, indeed.”

  “I will now reveal to you, then, the reason why, according to my idea, Ulysses does not want to return home,” said Rheingold. He paused a moment as if to mark the beginning of the revelation, and then, wrinkling his eyebrows and gazing at me with characteristic dictatorial seriousness, he went on: “Ulysses, in his subconscious mind, does not wish to return to Ithaca because in reality his relations with Penelope are unsatisfactory. That’s the reason, Molteni. And these relations had been unsatisfactory even before the departure of Ulysses to the war...in fact really Ulysses had gone off to the war because he was unhappy at home...and he was unhappy at home precisely because of his unsatisfactory relations with his wife!”

  Rheingold was silent for a moment, but without ceasing to frown in that half-dictatorial, half-didactic manner; and I took advantage of the pause to turn my chair so that I did not have the sun in my eyes. Then he continued: “If his relations with Penelope had been good, Ulysses would not have gone off to the war. Ulysses was not a swaggerer or a warmonger. Ulysses was a prudent, wise, wary kind of man. If his relations with his wife had been good, Ulysses, simply in order to prove to Menelaus that he supported him, would perhaps just have sent an expeditionary force under the command of some man he trusted...instead of which he went off himself, taking advantage of the war to leave home and thus escape from his wife.”

  “Very logical.”

  “Very psychological, you mean, Molteni,” corrected Rheingold, having noticed, perhaps, a touch of irony in my tone, “very psychological. And remember that everything depends upon psychology; without psychology there is no character, without character there is no story. Now, what is the psychology of Ulysses and Penelope? This is it: Penelope is the traditional feminine figure of archaic, feudal, aristocratic Greece; she is virtuous, noble, proud, religious, a good housewife, a good mother, a good wife. Ulysses, on the other hand, anticipates, in character, the men of a later Greece, the Greece of the sophists and the philosophers. Ulysses is a man without prejudices, and, if necessary, without scruples, subtle, reasonable, intelligent, irreligious, skeptical, sometimes even cynical.”

  “It seems to me,” I protested, “that you’re blackening the character of Ulysses. In reality, in the Odyssey—”

  But he interrupted me impatiently. “We’re not going to worry ourselves in the least about the Odyssey. Or rather, we’re going to interpret, to develop the Odyssey. We’re making a film, Molteni. The Odyssey is already written...the film is yet to be made!”

  I was silent again, and he resumed: “The reason for the bad relations between Ulysses and Penelope must therefore be sought in the difference between their characters. Before the Trojan War, Ulysses had done something to displease Penelope. What? This is where the suitors come in. In the Odyssey, we know that they aspire to the hand of Penelope and in the meantime live extravagantly at Ulysses’ expense, in his house. We’ve got to reverse the situation.”

  I gazed at him open-mouthed. “Don’t you understand?” He asked. “Well, I’ll explain it to you at once. As for the suitors, it may perhaps be convenient for us to reduce them to one person, Antinous, for instance. The suitors, then, have been in love with Penelope since before the Trojan War...and, being in love, they shower presents upon her, according to Greek custom. Penelope, being proud and dignified, in the antique manner, would like to refuse their presents, would, above all things, like her husband to turn the suitors out. But Ulysses, for some reason that we don’t know but that we shall easily find, does not wish to offend the suitors. As a reasonable man, he does not attach much importance to their courting of his wife, since he knows she is faithful; nor does he attribute much significance to their gifts, which perhaps do not really displease him at all. Remember that all Greeks were greedy for presents, Molteni. Naturally Ulysses does not for a moment advise Penelope to yield to the suitors’ desires, but merely not to offend them because he does not consider it worth while. Ulysses wants a quiet life, and he hates scandals. Penelope, who was expecting anything rather than this passive attitude on Ulysses’ part, is disgusted, almost incredulous. She protests, she rebels...but Ulysses is not to be shaken, there seems to him no cause for indignation...so he again advises Penelope to accept the presents, to behave kindly—what does it cost her, after all? And Penelope, in the end, follows her husband’s advice...but at the same time conceives a deep contempt for him...She feels she no longer loves him, and tells him so...Ulysses then realizes, too late, that, by his prudence, he has destroyed Penelope’s love. Ulysses then tries to remedy matters, to win his wife back again, but he is unsuccessful. His life at Ithaca becomes a hell. Finally, in desperation, he seizes the opportunity of the Trojan War to leave home. After seven years the war ends and he puts to sea again to return to Ithaca, but he knows he is awaited at home by a woman who no longer loves him, who, in fact, despises him, and therefore, unconsciously he welcomes any excuse for putting off this unpleasant, this dreaded, return...and yet, sooner or later, return he must. But, on his return, the same thing happens to him as happened to the cavalier in the legend of the dragon—do you remember, Molteni? The princess demanded that the cavalier should kill the dragon if he wished to be worthy of her love, so the cavalier killed the dragon and then the princess loved him. In the same way Penelope, at Ulysses’ return, after proving that she had been faithful to him, gave him to understand that her faithfulness did not mean love but merely virtue: she would recover her love for him on one, and only one, condition—that he would slay the suitors. Ulysses, as we know, was not in the least bloodthirsty or vindictive; he would perhaps have preferred to dismiss the suitors by gentler means, by persuasion. But this time he made up his mind, knowing, in fact, that upon killing of the suitors depends the esteem of Penelope and consequently her love also. So he kills them. Then, and only then, does Penelope cease to despise him, only then does she love him again. And so Ulysses and Penelope are again in love, after all those years of separation, and they celebrate their true marriage—their ‘Bluthochzeit,’ their blood-marriage. Well, do you understand, Molteni? Now to sum up! Point one: Penelope despises Ulysses for not having reacted like a man, like a husband, and like a king, to the indiscreet behavior of the suitors. Point two: her contempt causes the departure of Ulysses to the Trojan War. Point three: Ulysses, knowing that he is awaited at home by a woman who despises him, delays his return as long as he can. Point four: in order to regain Penelope’s esteem and love, Ulysses slays the suitors. Do you understand, Molteni?”

  I said I understood. All this was not very difficult to understand. But now, the feeling of aversion I had had for Rheingold’s interpretation from the very beginning sprang up again, stronger than ever, and it made me perplexed and bemused. In the meantime Rheingold was explaining pedantically: “Do you know how I arrived at this key to the whole situation? By means of a simple consideration of the slaughter of the suitors, as it is told in the Odyssey. I observed that this slaughter, brutal, ferocious, ruthless as it was, was in absolute contrast to the character of Ulysses as hitherto presented to us: cunning, flexible, subtle, reasonable, cautious...and I said to myself: ‘Ulysses might very well have politely shown the suitors the door...he had the possibility of doing th
is; being in his own house, and being king, all he had to do was to show himself as such. As he doesn’t do it, it is a sign that he has some good reason for not doing it. What reason? Obviously Ulysses wishes to prove that not only is he cunning, flexible, subtle, reasonable, cautious, but also, if necessary, as violent as Ajax, as unreasonable as Achilles, as ruthless as Agamemnon. And to whom does he want to prove this? Obviously to Penelope—and so: eureka!’ ”

  I said nothing. Rheingold’s argument was very nicely worked out, and fitted in perfectly with his inclination to transform the Odyssey into a psychoanalytical case-history. But, precisely because of that, it gave me a feeling of great repugnance, as though I were confronted with a kind of profanation. In Homer, everything was simple, pure, noble, ingenuous, even the astuteness of Ulysses, poetically contained as it was within the limits of an intellectual superiority. In Rheingold’s interpretation, on the other hand, everything was debased to the level of a modern play, full of moralizings and psychologizings. In the meantime Rheingold, extremely pleased with his own exposition, was concluding: “As you see, Molteni, the film’s already there, in all its details...all we have to do is to write it down.”

  I broke in, almost violently: “Look here, Rheingold, I don’t care for this interpretation of yours at all!”

  He opened his eyes very wide, more astonished, one would have said, by my boldness than by my disagreement. “You don’t care for it, my dear Molteni? And why don’t you care for it?”

  I answered with an effort, but with an assurance that grew steadily as I spoke: “I don’t care for it because your interpretation implies a complete falsification of the original character of Ulysses. In the Odyssey Ulysses is described, certainly, as a man who is subtle, reasonable, astute if you like, but always within the bounds of honor and dignity. He never ceases to be a hero, that is, a brave warrior, a king, an upright husband. Your interpretation—if you will allow me to say so, my dear Rheingold—runs the risk of making him into a man without dignity, without honor, without decency...apart from the fact that it’s much too far removed from the Odyssey.”

 
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