Contempt, p.21Alberto Moravia
This time she freed herself, almost furiously, from my grasp. “I’m not going,” she cried. “What’s the point of my going back to Rome? I should have to leave the flat, and, since my mother doesn’t want me, I should have to go and live in a furnished room and become a typist again. No, I’m not going...I’m staying here...I need quiet and rest, and I’m staying here...You go, if you want to. I’m staying here. Battista told me I could stay as long as I like...so I’m staying.”
Now I became furious too. “You’re going with me,” I cried. “Tomorrow morning.”
“You poor fool, you’re quite wrong; I’m staying here.”
“Then I shall stay here too...and I shall see to it that Battista turns us out of the house, both of us.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Yes, I shall.”
She looked at me for a moment; then, without saying a word, she left the room. The door of her bedroom banged violently; and then I heard the sound of the key being turned in the lock.
AND SO I found myself bound by a declaration made in a moment of anger: “I shall stay here.” In truth, as I realized after Emilia had left the room, it was impossible for me to stay there any longer: the one person who had to leave was, in fact, myself. I had broken off relations with Rheingold, I had broken off relations with Battista, and now, in all probability, I had broken them off with Emilia too. I had become—to put it briefly—superfluous, and it was up to me to go. But I had cried to Emilia that I intended to stay, and, in my heart, whether as a last hope, or out of pique, I felt I wanted to stay. Such a situation in other circumstances would have been positively ridiculous, but in my desperate state of mind it was deeply distressing; it was like that of a mountaineer who, having reached a particularly dangerous point in his ascent, realizes that he can neither stay where he is, nor go backward nor forward. In a sudden access of anxiety and agitation, I started walking up and down the room, wondering what I ought to do. I knew that I could not sit down to dinner that evening with Emilia and Battista as though nothing had happened; I thought for a moment of going to dine in Capri village and not coming home till late; but I had already been four times that day over the path leading there from the house, each time at a run, each time under a burning sun, and I felt tired and had no desire to face it again. I looked at the clock: it was six. There were still at least two hours before dinner. What should I do? At last I made up my mind: I went to my own room and turned the key in the lock.
I closed the shutters and, in the dark, threw myself on the bed. I was truly tired, and, as soon as I lay down, I felt that my limbs were instinctively seeking the best positions for sleep. At that moment I was grateful to my body, which was wiser than my mind and gave, without effort, its own mute response to the painful question: “What shall I do?” After a few moments I fell into a deep sleep.
I slept for some time, dreamlessly; then I awoke and, from the complete darkness that surrounded me, judged that it must be very late. I got up from the bed, went over to the window and threw it open, and saw that night had indeed fallen. I turned on the light and looked at my watch: it was nine o’clock. I had been asleep for three hours. Dinner, I knew, was at eight, or at latest, half past eight. Again I was faced with the question: what should I do? But now I felt rested, and the question at once found its own confident, light-hearted answer: “I am in the villa, I have no reason to hide myself, I shall present myself at the dinner-table and let come what may.” I even felt quite warlike and ready for a quarrel with Battista and, as I had threatened, prepared to act in such a way that he would turn Emilia and me out of the house. Quickly I tidied myself and left the room.
But the living-room was deserted, although the table was laid, in the usual corner. I noticed that it was laid for one person only. Almost immediately, to confirm my growing suspicions, the servant appeared in the doorway to tell me that Battista and Emilia had gone off to dine in the village. If I wished, I could join them at the Restaurant Bellavista. Otherwise I could dine at home; dinner, in fact, had been ready for half an hour.
I saw that Battista and Emilia had also put the question to themselves: what is to be done? And that they had solved the problem with the greatest ease, by going away and leaving me master of the field. This time, however, I felt neither jealousy nor annoyance nor disappointment. It seemed to me, on the contrary—and not without a feeling of sadness—that they had done the only thing they could do, and that I ought to be grateful to them for having avoided an unpleasant encounter. I realized also that this tactic of absence and emptiness was intended to make me go away; and that if they continued to make use of it on the ensuing days, they would undoubtedly succeed in their purpose. But that was a matter for the still uncertain future. I told the servant to serve me, that I would dine at home; and sat down at the table.
I ate little and unwillingly, tasting no more than one slice of ham out of the many that covered the dish, and a small piece of the big fish that Emilia had ordered for the three of us. My dinner was over in a few minutes. I told the servant to go to bed, as I should not need her again. And then I went out on to the terrace.
There were some deck chairs in a corner. I unfolded one and sat down beside the balustrade, facing the dark, invisible sea.
I had promised myself, on my way back to the villa after my meeting with Rheingold, that I would reflect calmly over everything after I had talked with Emilia. At that moment I had realized that I still knew nothing about the reasons for which she had ceased to love me; but it certainly did not enter my head that, even after I had had my explanation with her, I should continue to be ignorant of them. On the contrary, I was sure—albeit without reason—that the explanation would bring about a clarification which would in some way reduce and mitigate an issue in which, hitherto, I had seen only a frightening obscurity; so that, in the end, I should be forced to exclaim: “Is that all?...and is it for so unimportant a reason that you refuse to love me any more?”
But, instead of this, things had turned out exactly as I had not expected them to turn out: the explanation had taken place—or at least such explanation as was possible between us two—and I knew just as much as I had known before. Worse still, I had discovered that the reason for Emilia’s contempt could quite possibly be established through an examination of our past relations, yet she herself was not disposed to recognize this and wished, in her heart, to go on despising me without a reason, thus depriving me of all possibility of exculpating and justifying myself, and shutting herself off, on her side, from any possible return to esteem and love of me.
I realized, in short, that in Emilia the feeling of contempt had preceded by a long way any justifications for it, either real or imaginary, that I might have provided by my behavior. The contempt had been born out of the daily proximity of our two characters, regardless of any important, recognizable test, in the same way as the purity of a precious metal is established by contact with the touchstone. And indeed, when I had hazarded the theory that her ceasing to love me might have had its origin in a mistaken estimate, on her part, of my demeanor towards Battista, she had neither accepted nor rejected it, but had taken refuge in silence. In reality, I thought suddenly, with a stab of pain, she had considered me, from the start, to be capable of this and of even more; and all she asked was that I, by my theories, should confirm her in her feeling. In other words, in Emilia’s attitude towards me there was an appraisement of my worth, an estimate of my character, quite independent of my actions. The latter, it so happened, had appeared to confirm her appraisement and her estimate; but, even without such a confirmation, she would not, in all probability have judged me differently.
And indeed the proof, if there was any need of one, lay in the mysterious strangeness of her conduct. She could, from the very beginning, have dissipated the cruel misunderstanding upon which our love had been wrecked by talking to me, by telling me of it, by opening her heart to me. But she had not done this, because—as I had cried out to her a short
Up till now I had been lying in the deck chair. But, in the uncontrollable agitation which these thoughts caused in me, I rose almost automatically and went and stood by the parapet with my hands resting on it. I wanted, perhaps, to calm myself by contemplating the calmness of the night. But, as I held up my burning face to catch a faint puff of air that seemed to breathe from the surface of the sea, I thought suddenly that I did not deserve such relief. And I realized that a man who is despised neither can nor ought to find peace as long as the contempt endures. He may say, like the sinners at the Last Judgment: “Mountains, fall on us, and hills, cover us”; but contempt follows him even into the remotest hiding-place, for it has entered into his spirit and he bears it about with him wherever he may go.
I went back, then, and lay down again in the deck chair, and with a trembling hand lit a cigarette. It seemed to me, however, that, whether I was despicable or not—and I was convinced that I was not—I still retained my intelligence, a quality which even Emilia recognized in me and which was my whole pride and justification. I was bound to think, whatever the object of my thought might be; it was my duty to exercise my intelligence fearlessly in the presence of any kind of mystery. If I abandoned the exercise of my intelligence, there was indeed nothing left to me but the disheartening sense of my own supposed, but unproved, despicableness.
And so I started to think again, in a manner both determined and lucid. In what could it consist, this despicableness of mine? There returned to my mind now, inescapably, the words with which Rheingold, without realizing it, had described my position in relation to Emilia, thinking, instead, to describe that of Ulysses in relation to Penelope: “Ulysses is the civilized man, Penelope the primitive woman.” Rheingold, in short, after having, by his strained interpretation of the Odyssey, unintentionally precipitated the supreme crisis in my relations with Emilia, then consoled me—rather in the manner of Achilles’ spear which first wounded and then healed—by informing me, by means of the same interpretation, that I was not despicable but “civilized.” I was aware that this consolation was valid enough, if only I was willing to accept it. I was, in effect, the civilized man who, in a primitive situation—a crime in which honor is concerned—refuses to resort to the knife; the civilized man who prefers to use reason even in face of things that are sacred and considered as such. But no sooner had I shaped it in my own mind than I realized that such an explanation—an “historical” explanation, let us call it—could never satisfy me. Apart from the fact that I was not at all sure that the relationship between Emilia and me really resembled the one the film-director had imagined in the case of Ulysses and Penelope, this explanation, valid, no doubt, in the historical field, was not so in the highly intimate and individual realm of conscience, which is outside time and space. Here it is only our own interior spirit that can dictate laws. History could not justify or absolve me in the sphere proper to itself, which, in the situation in which I found myself, whatever the “historical” reasons for it may have been, was not really the spheres in which I desired to operate and to live.
Why, then, had Emilia ceased to love me? Why did she despise me? And, above all, why did she feel the need to despise me? Suddenly there came back to me the phrase she had used: “Because you’re not a man,” which had struck me because of its sweeping, commonplace character in contrast with the genuine, frank tone in which it had been pronounced; and it seemed to me that that phrase perhaps contained the key to Emilia’s attitude towards me. There was, in fact, in that phrase, a negative indication of Emilia’s own ideal image of a man who—to use her own words—was a man: that is to say, of what, according to her, I was not and never could be. Yet on the other hand the phrase itself, so sweeping, so slovenly in character, suggested that this ideal image had not arisen in Emilia’s mind from any conscious experience of human values, but rather from the conventions of the world in which she had found herself living. In that world, a man “who was a man” was, for instance, assuredly Battista, with his animal-like force and his gross successes. That this was true had been proved to me by the looks almost of admiration that she had directed towards him at table, the day before; and by her having finally surrendered to his desires, even if only out of desperation. In fact Emilia despised me and wished to despise me because, in spite of her genuineness and simplicity, or rather just because of them, she was completely ensnared in the commonplaces of Battista’s world; and among these commonplaces was the supposed inability of the poor man to be independent of the rich man, or in other words, to “be a man.” I did not know for certain whether Emilia really suspected me of having, out of self-interest, favored Battista’s aims; but, if this was true, she must clearly have thought along these lines: “Riccardo depends on Battista, he is paid by Battista, he hopes to get more work from Battista; Battista is paying court to me, therefore Riccardo suggests that I should become Battista’s mistress.”
I was astonished at not having thought of this before. It was indeed strange that I myself, who had so clearly recognized, in Rheingold’s and Battista’s interpretations of the Odyssey, their two different ways of looking at life, should not have realized that Emilia, in constructing an image of me so different from the truth, had done, fundamentally, the same thing as the producer and the director. The only difference was that Rheingold and Battista had set out to interpret the two imaginary figures of Ulysses and Penelope; whereas Emilia had applied the despicable conventions by which she was dominated to two living creatures, herself and me. Thus, from a mixture of moral straightforwardness and unconscious vulgarity there had sprung, perhaps, the idea—not accepted by Emilia, it is true, but not contradicted by her either—that I had wished to push her into the arms of Battista.
In proof of all this, I said to myself, let us imagine for a moment that Emilia has to choose between the three different interpretations of the Odyssey—Rheingold’s, Battista’s, and mine. She is certainly capable of understanding the commercial motives for which Battista insists upon a spectacular Odyssey; she can even approve Rheingold’s debasing psychological conception; but, with all her naturalness and straightforwardness, she is certainly quite incapable of achieving the level of my own interpretation, or rather, that of Homer and Dante. She cannot do this, not only because she is ignorant but also because she does not live in an ideal world but rather in the perfectly real world of people like Battista and Rheingold. Thus the circle closed in. Emilia was at the same time the woman of my dreams and the woman who judged and despised me on the basis of a miserable commonplace; Penelope, faithful to her absent husband for ten long years, and the typist, suspecting self-interest where there was none. And, in order to have the Emilia I loved and to bring it about that she judged me for what I was, I should have to carry her away from the world in which she lived and introduce her into a world as simple as herself, as genuine as herself, a world in which money did not count and in which language had retained its integrity, a world—as Rheingold had pointed out to me—after which I could aspire, certainly, but which did not in fact exist.
In the meantime, however, I had to go on living, that is, moving and operating in that same world of Battista’s and Rheingold’s. What should I do? I felt that in the first place I ought to free myself from the painful sense of inferiority inspired in me by the absurd suspicion of my own innate and, so to speak, natural, despicableness. For, when all was said and done, this—as I have already mentioned—seemed to be the underlying idea in Emilia’s attitude towards me, the idea of a baseness which was, so to speak, constitutional, and due not to behavior but to nature. Now I was convinced that no one could be said to be despicable in himself, irrespective of all outward appearance and all relationship with others. But in order to free myself from my sense of inferiority I had also to convince Emilia of this.
I recalled the threefold image of Ulysses which the Odyssey script had held out to me and in which I had discerned thr
I came to the conclusion, however, that for the moment it would not be a good plan to try to force Emilia. I would stay on until the next day and leave by the afternoon boat, without seeking to talk to her or to see her. Later, from Rome, I would write her a long letter, explaining all the many things I had not been able to clear up by word of mouth.
At this point in my thoughts I heard quiet voices coming, apparently, from the path below the terrace, and soon I recognized them as those of Emilia and Battista. Hurriedly I ran back into the house and went and shut myself in my room. But I was not sleepy; moreover it seemed to me it would be too painful for me to stay shut up in that stuffy room while those other two were talking and moving about the villa, all around me. Since I had been suffering from sleeplessness, especially during these last weeks, I had brought with me from Rome a very strong sleeping-medicine, very speedy in its effect. I took a double dose of it and threw myself down again—in real anger, this time—on the bed, fully dressed as I was. I must have fallen asleep almost at once, for I don’t think I heard the voices of Battista and Emilia for more than a few minutes.
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes