Contempt, p.18Alberto Moravia
As I spoke, I saw Rheingold’s half-moon smile grow narrower and narrower till it faded away altogether. Then he said, in a harsh tone and putting into his voice a Teutonic accent which he generally managed to conceal: “My dear Molteni, allow me to say that, as usual, you have understood nothing at all!”
“As usual?” I repeated, hurt.
“Yes, as usual,” asserted Rheingold; “and I say so at once because—now listen to me carefully, Molteni.”
“I’m listening, you can be sure of that.”
“I do not wish to make Ulysses, as you seem to imagine, into a man without dignity, or decency, or honor. I merely want to make him into the man who appears in the Odyssey... Who is Ulysses in the Odyssey, what does he represent? Ulysses in the Odyssey is, simply, civilized man, he represents civilization. Amongst all the other heroes who are, to be precise, non-civilized men, Ulysses is the only one who is civilized. And in what does Ulysses’ civilized quality consist? It consists in not having prejudices, in always making use of reason, at all costs, even in questions—as you say—of decency, of dignity, of honor...in being intelligent, objective, I would almost say scientific. Naturally,” Rheingold went on, “civilization has its inconveniences. It forgets, for instance, very easily, the importance that so-called questions of honor have for people who are not civilized. Penelope is not a civilized woman, she is a woman of tradition. She does not understand reason, she only understands instinct, blood, pride. Now listen carefully, Molteni, and try to understand me. Civilization, to all those who are not civilized, may appear—in fact often does appear—to be corruption, immorality, lack of principles, cynicism. That, for instance, was the complaint that Hitler, a man who was certainly not civilized, had to make against civilization, and he too talked a great deal about honor, but we know now what Hitler was and what honor meant to him. In the Odyssey—to put it briefly—Penelope represents barbarism and Ulysses civilization. Do you know, Molteni, that you, whom I thought to be civilized like Ulysses, argue just like the barbarian Penelope?”
These last words were uttered with a broad and brilliant smile: obviously Rheingold was extremely well pleased with his bright idea of comparing me to Penelope. But I felt this comparison, for some unknown reason, to be quite particularly distasteful. In fact I believe I turned pale with anger, and I said, in a voice that trembled: “If by civilization you mean that a husband should give a helping hand to the man who is courting his wife, well, my dear Rheingold, in that case I am, and I feel, a barbarian.”
This time, however, much to my surprise, Rheingold did not lose his temper. “One moment,” he said, raising his hand; “you’re not being reasonable this morning, Molteni, just like Penelope. Now let’s do this. You go off and have a swim now, and think it over. Then, tomorrow morning, come back here and tell me the result of your reflections—is that all right?”
Disconcerted, I answered: “Yes, that’s all right...but I doubt if I shall change my mind.”
“You go and think it over,” repeated Rheingold, rising and holding out his hand.
I, too, rose to my feet. Rheingold added serenely: “I’m sure that tomorrow, when you’ve thought it over, you’ll agree with me.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. And I walked away, down the path towards the hotel.
I HAD NOT been with Rheingold for more than an hour: the discussion about the Odyssey had lasted about that length of time. I had, therefore, the whole day in front of me to “think it over,” as he had expressed it, to make up my mind, in fact, as to whether I accepted his interpretation or not. To tell the truth, as soon as I came out of the hotel, my first thought was by no means to meditate over Rheingold’s ideas but rather to chase away even the very memory of them and enjoy the beauty of the day. On the other hand I felt that there was something in Rheingold’s ideas that went right outside the limits of film production; something I could not define, but which had been revealed to me by my excessively strong reaction. And so, after all, I really should have to “think it over.” I recalled that, when I left the villa that morning, I had caught a glimpse of a small, lonely cove down below the house, so I decided to go there: there I should be able to take the director’s advice and “think it over”; or, if I preferred, not think about it at all but simply take a swim in the sea.
I took the same path as before, therefore, the path that runs around the island. It was still early, and I met scarcely anyone along the shady track—a few boys whose bare feet, in the surrounding silence, made a soft sound on the brick paving; a couple of little girls who walked along with arms round each other’s shoulders, chatting in low voices; two or three old ladies taking their dogs for a walk.
At the lowest point of the path I turned off down the narrow lane that winds along the loneliest and most precipitous part of the island. I walked a little farther and found myself confronted by a fork: a smaller path branched off from the lane, leading to a summer-house perched at the edge of a precipice. I turned into this path and, when I reached the summer-house, looked down. The sea, three hundred feet below, trembled and sparkled in the sun, shifting and changing color according to the wind, blue in one place, almost violet in another, green farther away. From this remote, silent sea the perpendicular rocks of the island seemed to be flying to meet me, to be coming upward in swarms, like arrows, their bare points flashing in the sun. Then, all at once, a kind of suicidal exaltation came over me, and I felt I had no further desire to live; and I said to myself that if at that moment I suddenly launched myself into that luminous immensity I should perhaps die in a manner not altogether unworthy of the better part of myself. Yes, I should be killing myself to attain, in death, the purity which in life I had failed to achieve.
The temptation to suicide was genuine, and perhaps, for a moment, my life was really in danger. Then, almost instinctively, I thought of Emilia, wondering how she would receive the news of my death, and suddenly I said to myself: “You wouldn’t be killing yourself because you’re tired of life; you’re not tired of life. You would be killing yourself for Emilia!” I was disconcerted by this idea, which, almost maliciously, it seemed, robbed my exaltation of all quality of disinterestedness. Then I went on to ask myself: “Because of Emilia or for the sake of Emilia? The distinction is important”; and immediately I answered my own question: “For the sake of Emilia. In order to regain her esteem, even in a posthumous way. In order to leave her with the remorse of having unjustly despised you.”
No sooner had I formulated this thought, then—as in a children’s puzzle, when a number of disordered pieces are put together to form a single design—the picture of my present situation was, in part, completed by this new idea: “You reacted to Rheingold’s theories in that violent manner because in reality it seemed to you that, when he was explaining the relations between Ulysses and Penelope, he was alluding, though he did not know it, to the relations between you and Emilia. When Rheingold spoke of Penelope’s contempt for Ulysses, you thought of Emilia’s contempt for you. The truth, in short, annoyed you, and it was against the truth that you protested.”
The picture was still not complete; but now a few more considerations put the last, final touches to it. “You thought of killing yourself because you’re not clear in your own mind. In reality, if you want to regain Emilia’s esteem, it’s not in the least necessary for you to kill yourself, much less than that will suffice. Rheingold indicated what you ought to do. Ulysses, in order to regain Penelope’s love, killed the suitors. In theory, you ought to kill Battista, but we live in a less violent and uncompromising world than that of the Odyssey. All you need to do is to throw up the script, break off all relations with Rheingold, and leave again for Rome tomorrow morning. Emilia advised you not to throw up the job because, in reality, she wants to despise you and wants you, by your behavior, to confirm her in her contempt. You mustn’t take any notice of her advice; you must act, instead, just as—according to Rheingold—Ulysses acted.”
This was, in
With these thoughts in my mind, and almost without realizing where I was going, I turned into the lane, went along it until I was below the villa, and then started running down a steep, crumbling path towards the little lonely cove of which I had had a glimpse when I came out that morning. I was out of breath when I reached it, and, to recover myself, I stood still for a moment on a rock, looking round. The brief stretch of stony beach was all surrounded by great irregular masses of rock which looked as if they had that very moment come rolling down from the heights above; two rocky promontories closed it in, rising sheer from the green, transparent water which was penetrated by rays of sunlight that showed up the white, pebbly bottom. Then I noticed a black rock, all crannied and corroded and half submerged in sand and water, and thought I would go and lie down behind it to be sheltered from the sun which was already very strong. But no sooner had I walked round it than I caught sight of Emilia lying, quite naked, on the beach.
To tell the truth, I did not at once recognize her, for her face was hidden by a big straw hat; in fact my first impulse was to retreat, as I thought I had come upon some unknown sun-bather. Then my eye fell on the arm which was stretched out on the pebbles, and, following the arm down to the hand, I recognized, on the forefinger, a ring in the shape of two little hardstone acorns set in golden husks which I had given Emilia some time before as a birthday present.
I was right behind Emilia and saw her foreshortened. She was naked, as I said, and her clothes were lying beside her on the sand, a little pile of colored garments; it seemed impossible that they could have covered that large body. The thing that struck me most, indeed, about Emilia’s nudity, from the very first glance, was not this or that detail, but, in general, the size and powerfulness of her body. I knew, of course, that Emilia was no larger than a great many other women; but at that moment her nudity seemed to me immense, as though the sea and sky had lent her some of their vastness. As she was lying flat on her back, her breasts were only vaguely defined by the slight swelling of the stretched-out muscle, but to my eyes they seemed very large, both in outline and in volume and in the rosy circles of the nipples; so did also her hips, spread out over the sand in strong, comfortable amplitude; so also her belly, that seemed to gather all the light of the sun into its circle of flesh; and so her legs, which, lower than the rest of her body on account of the slope, looked as though they were being pulled downwards by their weight and by length. All of a sudden I wondered what could be the source of this feeling in me, of this sense of largeness and power, so profound and so disturbing, and then I realized that it arose from the desire that had been re-awoken in me at this unexpected moment. It was a desire which, in its immediacy and urgency, was not so much physical as spiritual, a desire to be united with her, but not with her body, not inside her body; rather, through the medium of her body. I was hungry for her; yet the satisfaction of this hunger did not depend on me but only on her, on an act of consent on her part that would reach out to meet my hunger. And I felt that she refused me this consent, although, naked as she was, she appeared by an illusion of the eye to be offering herself to me.
But I could not remain in indefinite contemplation of this forbidden nakedness. I at last took a step forward and said clearly, amid the surrounding silence: “Emilia!”
She made a rapid, double movement. She threw off her hat, stretched out her hand and snatched a chemise from the pile of clothes, as if to cover herself with it; and at the same time sat up and twisted herself around to look behind her. But when I added: “It’s me, Riccardo,” she at last saw me, and then she dropped the chemise on the shingle. Meanwhile she remained twisted around in order to see me better. She was afraid first of all, I supposed, that I might be a stranger; but then, seeing that it was I, she judged it no longer necessary to cover herself—as though she were in the presence of someone who actually did not exist. I record this thought, fundamentally absurd though it was, so as to give an exact idea of my state of mind at that moment. It never entered my head that she did not cover herself merely because I was not a stranger but her husband. I was convinced that I no longer existed for her, at any rate from the sexual point of view, and in that ambiguous gesture of hers I naturally recognized a confirmation of my own non-existence. I said in a low voice: “I’ve been standing here looking at you for at least five minutes...do you know, I felt I was seeing you for the first time?”
She said nothing; all she did was to turn a little farther around so as to see me better, at the same time adjusting her dark glasses on her nose with a gesture of indifferent curiosity. I went on: “Do you mind my staying here, or would you rather I went away?”
I saw her considering me; then, with a calm movement, she stretched herself out in the sun again, saying: “Stay if you like, as far as I’m concerned...As long as you don’t take the sun off me!”
So she really did consider me to be non-existent—nothing but an opaque body that might put itself between the sun and her own, naked body, which, according to my desire, ought on the other hand to have felt itself in relationship with mine and have revealed this relationship in some way, whether by a show of modesty or of alarm. Her indifference disconcerted me in a most painful way; I felt my mouth grow suddenly dry, as though with fear; and I was aware that my face was assuming, against my will, an expression of uneasiness, of bewilderment, of false, distressing assurance. “It’s very pleasant here,” I said, “I shall take a sunbath too...” And, in order to put a good face on it, I sat down at a little distance from her, leaning my back against one of the great lumps of rock.
There followed a very long silence. Endless waves of golden light, gently burning and dazzling, enveloped me, and I could not help half-closing my eyes, with a deep sense of well-being and peace. But I could not pretend to myself that I was there simply for the sun; I felt I could never enjoy it fully unless Emilia loved me. Almost as if I were thinking aloud, I said: “This place seems purposely made for people who love each other.”
“Yes, doesn’t it!” she echoed, without stirring, from under the straw hat which hid her face.
“Not for us, who no longer love each other!”
This time she said nothing. And I remained with my eyes fixed upon her, feeling, at the sight of her, a return of all the desire that had troubled me shortly before, when I had emerged from between the rocks and seen her for the first time.
Intense feelings have in them the virtue of making us pass from feeling to action in a wholly spontaneous fashion, without the concurrence of the will, almost unconsciously. Without my knowing how it had happened, I found myself no longer sitting apart by myself, with my back against a rock, but kneeling beside Emilia, bending over her with my face held close to hers, while she lay motionless and asleep. I don’t know how, but I had already removed the hat that hid her face, and, as I prepared to kiss her, I was looking at her mouth as one sometimes looks at a fruit before putting one’s teeth into it. It was a large, very full mouth, and the redness of the lipstick upon it looked parched and cracked as though it had been dried up, not by the sun, but by some interior heat. I said to myself that that mo
With a violent jolt, I started and awoke from what must evidently have been a kind of trance induced by the silence and the heat of the sun. In front of me, Emilia was lying on the beach as before; and her face was still hidden by the straw hat. I realized that I had dreamed the kiss, or rather, had actually experienced it in that state of delirious hankering which constantly replaces dreary reality with some more attractive illusion. I had kissed her and she had returned my kiss; but the one who had kissed and the one who had returned the kiss were merely a couple of phantoms evoked by desire and entirely dissociated from our two persons as we lay motionless and apart. I looked at Emilia and wondered suddenly: “Suppose I now tried really to kiss her?” And I answered myself: “No, you won’t try...you’re paralyzed by timidity and by the consciousness of her contempt for you.” All at once I said, in a loud voice: “Emilia!”
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes