Contempt, p.4Alberto Moravia
Without raising my head, I said in a low voice: “Yes, I want to.” It was not true, for by this time I no longer desired her, but I wished to endure this new, curious sense of estrangement to the bitter end. I heard her say “all right,” and then I heard her walking about the room and moving around the bed behind me. All she had to do was to take off her chemise, I thought, and I recalled how in the past I had watched this simple act with enchanted eyes, like the brigand in the fairy-tale who, when the magic word had been uttered, saw the door of the cave slowly open, revealing the splendor of the marvelous treasures within. But this time I was unwilling to look, knowing that I should be looking with different eyes, eyes that were no longer childish and pure, even if desirous, but that had been, by her indifference, made cruel and unworthy both of her and of myself. I remained as I was, leaning forward, my hands in my lap, my head bowed. After a little I heard the springs of the bed creak gently; she had got on to the bed and was lying on top of the bed-clothes. There was again a slight rustling as though she were changing position, and then she said, still in that horrible new voice: “Well, come along then...what are you waiting for?”
I neither turned nor moved; but all of a sudden I wondered whether it had always been like that, in our relationship. Yes, I said to myself at once, it had always been like that, more or less; she had always undressed and lain down on the bed: how else could it have been? And yet, at the same time, everything had been different. Never until now had there been this mechanical docility, cold and detached, such as was apparent from the tone of her voice and even from the creaking of the bed-springs and the rustling of the pressed-down bed-covers. Formerly everything, on the contrary, had happened in a cloud of inspired haste, of intoxicated unconsciousness, of ravished complicity. It happens sometimes, when one’s mind is absorbed by some profound thought, that one puts down an object of some kind—a book, a brush, a shoe—somewhere or other, and then, when the fit of absorption is over, one looks for it in vain for hours and, in the end, finds it in some strange, almost unbelievable place, so that a physical effort is required to reach it—on top of a cupboard, in a hidden corner, inside a drawer. That is what had happened to me, hitherto, in relation to love-making. Everything had always run its course in a mood of swift, feverish, enchanted absorption, and I had always come to myself again in Emilia’s arms almost without being able to recollect how it had all happened and what I had done between the moment when we were sitting opposite each other, quiet and without desire, and that other moment in which we were joined together in the final embrace. This absorption was now entirely lacking in her and therefore in me also. Now, I could have observed her movements with a cold, even if excited, eye, just as she, no doubt, could have observed mine. All of a sudden, the feeling which was becoming clearer and clearer in my furious, disgusted mind took on the character of a precise image: I was no longer face to face with the wife I loved and who loved me, but with a rather impatient and inexpert prostitute who was preparing to submit passively to my embraces hoping only that they would be brief and not too tiring. I had this image right before my eyes for a moment, like an apparition, and then I felt that it went, so to speak, around behind my back and became one with Emilia lying behind me on the bed. At the same moment I rose to my feet, still without turning around, and said: “Never mind...I don’t want to, now...I’ll go and sleep in the other room; you stay here”; then, on tiptoe, I went to the door of the living-room.
The divan bed was ready, with the sheet turned down and Emilia’s nightdress laid out on top with the sleeves spread wide. I took this nightdress, the slippers she had placed on the floor, and the dressing-gown she had arranged on an armchair, went back into the bedroom and put them all down on one of the chairs there. But this time I could not help raising my eyes and looking at her. She was still in the attitude she had taken up when she lay down on the bed and called to me: “Come along then.” She was lying quite naked, with one arm behind her neck and her head turned towards me, her eyes wide open but indifferent and as it were unseeing, and the other arm lying across her body so that her sex was covered by her hand. But now, it seemed to me, she was no longer the prostitute; she had now become a semblance in a mirage, with a haze of impossibility, of nostalgia, about her, and infinitely remote, as though she were not only a few paces away from me but in some far-off region, outside reality and outside my personal feelings.
I CERTAINLY HAD a presentiment that evening that a period full of difficulties was beginning for me, but, strange to say I did not infer from Emilia’s behavior the results that might have been expected. There was no doubt that she had shown herself cold and indifferent, and it was perfectly true that I should rather have renounced love altogether than obtain it in that way. But I loved her, and love has a great capacity not only for illusion but also for forgetfulness. Next day—I don’t know how—the incident of the previous evening which later on was to appear so full of significance to me had already lost, in my eyes, much of its importance, losing its burden of hostility and reducing itself to an insignificant divergence of opinion. The truth is that one easily forget what one does not want to remember; and furthermore I think that Emilia herself contributed to my forgetfulness for a few days later, though she still insisted on sleeping alone, she did not refuse my love. It is true that on this occasion she again behaved in the cold, passive manner which had previously roused me to revolt; but, as often happens, what had seemed intolerable to me on that first evening seemed, a few days later, to be not only tolerable but even flattering. I was already, in fact, without being aware of it, in the slippery region where the coldness of the day before becomes, a day later—thanks to false arguments and the goodwill of a mind in need of illusion—warm-hearted love. I had thought that Emilia, that first evening, had behaved like a prostitute; but less than a week afterwards I consented to love her and be loved by her in exactly that way; and since, in the obscure depths of my mind, I had perhaps feared that she really did not want me any more, I was grateful to her for her cold, impatient passivity just as though it had been the normal attitude in our sexual relations.
But, if I continued to delude myself that Emilia still loved me as in the past, or rather, if I preferred not to put the question of our love to myself, there was one thing which betrayed the state of my heart towards the change that had come about between us. That was my work. I had, for the time being, given up my theatrical ambitions and devoted myself to the cinema, simply in order to satisfy Emilia’s longing to possess a home of her own. As long as I had been sure that Emilia loved me, the work of script-writer did not seem to me too onerous; but after the incident of that evening it seemed to me that a subtle feeling of discouragement, of restlessness, of repugnance had crept into it. In reality—as I have already said—I had accepted this job just as I would have accepted any other, even more uncongenial and even farther removed from my own interests, merely out of love for Emilia. Now that this love was on the point of failing me, the work lost its meaning and justification and acquired, in my eyes, the absurd character of sheer slavery.
I want to say a few words about the job of script-writer, if only to give a better understanding of my feelings at that time. As everyone knows, the script-writer is the one who—generally in collaboration with another script-writer and with the director—writes the script or scenario, that is, the canvas from which the film will later be taken. In this script, and according to the development of the action, the gestures and words of the actors and the various movements of the camera are minutely indicated, one by one. The script is, therefore, drama, mime, cinematographic technique, mise-en-scène and direction, all at the same time. Now, although the script-writer’s part in the film is of the first importance and comes immediately below that of the director, it remains always, for reasons inherent in the fashion in which the art of the cinema has hitherto developed, hopelessly subordinate and obscure. If, in fact, the arts are to be judged from the point of view of direct expression
But, apart from these disadvantages, which we may call fundamental and immutable, there are others also, in the job of the script-writer, which, though varying according to the quality and type of the film and of his collaborators, are no less annoying on that account. Unlike the director, who enjoys a considerable measure of independence and freedom in his dealings with the producer, the script-writer can only accept or refuse the task offered to him; but, once he has accepted it, he has no choice whatever in the matter of his collaborators: he is himself chosen, he does not choose. And so it comes about that, as a result of the personal likes and dislikes, the convenience, or the caprice of the producer, or simply as a result of chance, the script-writer finds himself forced to work with people he does not care for, people who are his inferiors in culture and breeding, who irritate him by features of character or behavior that are offensive to him. Now working together on a script is not like working together in an office, let us say, or a factory, where each man has his own job to do independently of his neighbor and where personal relations can be reduced to very little or even abolished altogether. Working together on a script means living together from morning to night, it means the marriage and fusion of one’s own intelligence, one’s own sensibility, one’s own spirit, with those of the other collaborators; it means, in short, the creation, during the two or three months that the work lasts, of a fictitious, artificial intimacy whose only purpose is the making of the film, and thereby, in a last analysis (as I have already mentioned), the making of money. This intimacy, moreover, is of the worst possible kind, that is, the most fatiguing, the most unnerving and the most cloying that can be imagined, since it is founded not on work that is done in silence, as might be that of scientists engaged together on some experiment, but on the spoken word. The director usually calls his collaborators together early in the morning, for this is necessitated by the shortness of the time allowed for the completion of the script; and from early morning until night-time the script-writers do nothing but talk, keeping to the work in hand most of the time but often talking from sheer volubility or fatigue, wandering away together on the most varied subjects. One will tell dirty stories, one will expound his political ideas, one will psychologize about some common acquaintance, another talk about actors and actresses, another relieve his feelings by telling of his own personal circumstances; and in the meantime, in the room where they are working, the air is filled with cigarette-smoke, coffee-cups pile up on the tables amongst the pages of the script, and the script-writers themselves, who had come in in the morning well-groomed, tidy and with neatly brushed hair, are to be seen in the evening rumpled and sweaty and untidy, in their shirtsleeves, looking worse than if they had been trying to ravish a frigid, restive woman. And indeed the mechanical, stereo-typed way in which scripts are fabricated strongly resembles a kind of rape of the intelligence, having its origin in determination and interest rather than in any sort of attraction or sympathy. Of course it can also happen that the film is of superior quality, that the director and his collaborators were already, beforehand, bound together by mutual esteem and friendship, and that, in fact, the work is carried out in the ideal conditions that may occur in any human activity, however disagreeable; but these favorable combinations are rare—as, indeed, good films are rare.
It was after I had signed the contract for a second filmscript—this time not with Battista but with another producer—that courage and determination suddenly abandoned me and I began, with increasing repugnance and annoyance, to resent all the disadvantages of which I have already spoken. Each day, from the time when I got up in the morning, seemed like an arid desert, with no oasis of meditation or leisure, dominated by the merciless sun of forced cinema inspiration. As soon as I entered the director’s house and he welcomed me in his study with some remark such as: “Well, did you think about it last night? Did you find a solution?”—I had a feeling of boredom and rebellion. Then, during our work, everything seemed to be infected with impatience and disgust—the divagations of every kind by which the director and the script-writers, as I have already mentioned, seek to alleviate the long hours of discussion; the incomprehension or obtuseness or simple divergence of opinion amongst my collaborators as the script was gradually written; even the director’s praises for each of my inventions or decisions, praises which tasted bitter to me because I felt, as I have said, that I was giving the best of myself for something which did not fundamentally concern me and in which I was not participating willingly. This last disadvantage, in fact, appeared to me at that time to be the most intolerable of all; and, each time that the director, speaking in the demagogic, vulgar way that is common to so many of them, jumped up in his chair and exclaimed: “Bravo! You’re a wow!”—I could not help thinking, contemptuously: “I might have put that idea into some drama or comedy of my own.” Furthermore, by some strange and bitter contradiction, I could never manage, in spite of my repugnance, to fail in my duty as a script-writer. Film-scripts are rather like the old-fashioned four-in-hands, in which there were some horses, stronger or more willing, who did the pulling, and others who pretended to pull while really they allowed themselves to be dragged along by their companions. Well, in spite of all my impatience and disgust, I was always the horse who did the pulling; the other two, the director and my script-writer colleague, when faced with any difficulty always waited—as I very soon noticed—for me to come forward with my solution. And I, though inwardly cursing both my conscientiousness and my facility, did not hesitate but, with some sudden inspiration, provided the solution required. I was not driven to do this from any spirit of rivalry, but merely from a sense of honesty stronger than any contrary desire: I was paid, therefore I had to work. But each time I was ashamed of myself and had a feeling both of avarice and of regret, as though, for a little money, I had ruined something beyond price, something of which I could, somehow or other, have made an infinitely better use.
As I said, I did not become aware of all these disadvantages until two months after I had signed the first contract with Battista. And at first I did not understand why they had not been obvious to me from the beginning and why I had taken such a long time to notice them. But, when the feeling of repugnance and failure aroused in my mind by the work I had once so ardently desired still persisted, I could not help—very gradually, as o
I BEGAN THEREFORE to live like one who carries within him the infirmity of an impending disease but cannot make up his mind to go to the doctor; in other words, I tried not to reflect too much either upon Emilia’s demeanor towards me, or upon my work. I knew that some day I should have to face this kind of reflection; but, just because I was aware that it was unavoidable, I sought to put it off for as long as possible: the little I had already suspected made me shy away from it, and also, albeit unconsciously, fear it. And so I went on having those relations with Emilia which at the beginning had seemed to me intolerable, and which now, when I feared the worst, I tried to persuade myself—without any success—were normal: during the day indifferent, casual, evasive conversations; at night, from time to time, lovemaking, with much embarrassment and a hint of cruelty on my side, and no real participation on hers. In the meantime I continued to work diligently, even furiously, though more and more unwillingly and with a more and more decided repugnance. If I had had the courage to acknowledge the situation to myself, at that moment, I should certainly have renounced my work and renounced love as well, for I should have been convinced, as I was later, that all life had gone out of both. But I did not have that courage; and perhaps I deluded myself into believing that time would take it upon itself to solve my problems, without any effort on my part. Time, in fact, did solve them, but not in the way I should have wished. And so the days passed, in a dull, dim atmosphere of expectancy, with Emilia denying herself to me and myself denying myself to my work.
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes