Set this house on fire, p.20
Set This House on Fire, p.20William Styron
Now, in my smudged and tear-stained book of memories there are still mounted two photographs. In the first of these (I am trying to remember at what party it was taken) my own white hand is visible, fishbelly-pale in the glare of the flashbulb. Carole is there, too, looking quite dazed and voluptuous, her lips moistly reflecting the light as she bends down her face to give Mason what I’m now sure must have become, half a second later, a kiss on the back of his well-barbered head. What is it that disturbs me so about this picture—and in a way that has nothing to do with what Mason or Carole were doing at all? It is Mason himself who dominates the picture. In profile, he is talking to an invisible someone; he is unaware of the lips, the wet bud of a tongue hovering at the nape of his neck, and at that moment, poised in that split instant of time before the mouth descends, his face wears an expression of total dejection. It is an odd look, one Mason rarely wore—of heaviness, of weariness, and disgust with life (who could he be talking to? it does not matter)—and I have pondered that picture many times, always touched a bit by this fleeting sorrow of his, which I so seldom saw in life. Was he as unhappy during that time as this picture tells me he was? Right now I cannot say. Certainly there is not a speck of sadness in this other picture of Mason. Here we are on his Village rooftop—there I am again, and there is Mason, and not Carole this time, but Celia. It is noontime of a spring day; this you can tell from the light, and from the blooming flowerboxes and trees on the penthouse roofs of the buildings behind, and by the cool spring dress Celia is wearing. As from all fading snapshots, longing and nostalgia emanate from this one: they are in the amateurish tilt of the picture and its yellowing hue and in the sense of springs gone forever, old shoe styles and hair-dos, rooftops that no longer exist (Mason’s house was torn down not long ago), in that knowledge which is perhaps the camera’s single most poignant gift, of time past and irretrievable. Celia, appearing in retrospect now even more lovely than I remember her in the flesh, has her face and eyes upturned toward Mason, very close to his own, seeming ready to give him a roguish nibble on the cheek with her perfect white teeth. Mason inclines his head down toward her; he is ready to bite her back, but most playfully and joyfully, and his face is suffused with exuberance, with merriment and happiness. As for myself, I am standing somewhat aside, contemplating whoever it was that snapped the picture, and my expression can best be described as glum. And behind us all a flock of pigeons, slatecolored blurs, rove heavenward above the water towers, lending to the whole moment of bygone time a feeling of feathery movement, of space and life… .
I must say that Mason really took over my hours, night and day, during that brief period. I had quit my job preparatory to going to Europe and, having nothing to do, I found it was fun to tag along with Mason; he never ran out of steam, there was always something new to do, somewhere new to go, and he always picked up the check. I protested this (I really did) but he had a smooth way to make me rise above my own secret humiliation. “Look, dollbaby,” he would say, “those French girls you’re going to have soon don’t come cheap. Save your money.” And then he would pause. “May I be frank about something?” he would continue. “I’m a rich boy and I know it, and I like to spend dough on people I love. Good God, let’s don’t let Justin’s ill-gotten loot go to waste. Now give me back that tab!” Then, pulling out his wallet, he would say: “In a crummy democracy you have to go through the damndest contortions if you’re rich, pretending you haven’t got a nickel to your name.”
I relented, with a sort of hoarse catch in my voice. It was a cozy situation to find oneself in—for a short term, anyway. More than once I wondered whether—if I had not already planned to go abroad—it might not be possible to remain under Mason’s aegis for the rest of my days, and the thought gave me a shiver. Because if I suspected that there was lust for a kind of ownership in these big gestures of Mason’s, I also realized with some shame that my willingness to be owned was stronger than I ever wanted to admit. But who could blame me? Each night (and there were at least five of them) brought me a different girl. And they were all brainless, beautiful, and willing. What a treat to be in the hands of such a casual, big-hearted procurer! I mean it. I have never had so much consecutive sex, and of such variety, in all my life. And I was indebted to Mason for it. I had become the crown prince among his freeloaders. And I knew I was in when he showed me his collection of erotica.
When I first saw the collection, I could manage only a long, deep-felt whistle. “Where’d you get all this stuff, Mason?” I asked.
“Friend of mine died of a brain tumor a couple of years ago. It was his bequest to me. Let me give you some more ice there. He gave me the core of the collection, that is,” he went on, “most of those books over to the right there. I got interested and added the rest a little bit at a time. What it adds up to, really, is an investment. You know there’s a big market for good stuff like this. It’s almost as solid as the art market and a hell of a lot more stable than gold or stamps.”
The “core,” I discovered, was made up of such grizzled entries as The Thousand Nights and a Night (London, privately printed, 1921); The Memoirs of Fanny Hill (ditto, 1890); the complete works both in French and English of that “really incomparable genius, in his own way,” as Mason described him, the “divine” Marquis de Sade, including his masterpiece, Justine, and Juliette, and Philosophie dans le boudoir and Les Crimes de l’amour (Paris, end plates, illustrated, 1902); Apollinaire’s Les Onze mille verges; and half a dozen volumes, in English, of the Paris-printed bonbons for undernourished Anglo-Saxons. But after I finished thumbing through these elementary items there came a tidal wave of delights such as I had never dreamed existed: beautifully embellished works in Italian and French, some dating from the seventeenth century; Priapean celebrations of Roman fashions in love, circa A.D. 79, as revealed by the friezes of Pompeii; delicate and ingenious drawings from Arabia, from India, from Java and Japan, on rice paper and scrolls; love among the Cubans and the Turkestani and the Persians; love even among the Scandinavians, where in a series of photographs a handsome and vigorous blond quartet from Stockholm, slippery-looking as herrings, fornicated amid an aura of gingerbread bedsteads, smorgasbord and schnaps. One Chinese entry—a kind of apotheosis of depravity, if Mason was to be believed—formed an exquisite round-robin of contortionist perversions, graven on a scroll which he swore up and down was made of human skin. Into this lascivious concourse I plunged giddily, and since hot erotica, like catnip, is meant to arouse, it did just that to me. At least, for a while. Throbbing, I examined the act of love as performed conventionally in New Orleans brothels, in echelon among the Monégasques, even octagonally—in an album of snapshots more chaotic than titillating—among a bedroom full of disheveled Greeks. A pair of Algerian priests made love to a skinny, spiritless nun, and the nun to the Mother Superior; a small volume of oddly fatalistic lithograph cartoons, done in England long before Waterloo, showed Bonaparte himself, massively virile, astride a series of squirming mistresses labeled Italia, Germania, and Alas, Britannia! The zoological section, featuring humans with brutes, or vice versa, I found less to my taste, as I did the huge and synoptic German Lexikon of sex which, explicit though it was in its illustrations, leaned grimly toward police-file photographs of torn and dismembered children and other victims of sexual infraction. In fact, of the arts of mankind, this entire mode of expression has, to all except perhaps the pubescent and the unbalanced, the least staying power of all, so that it was not long before I was betrayed by a certain repetitive-ness in what I had seen, and, numb—really numb—I turned to look at Mason, feeling terribly blue about the whole enterprise. “You mean this junk is really worth a lot of money?” I said.
“You’re damn right it is. That Chinese scroll alone I paid five hundred dollars for. Early Ch’ing dynasty. Here’s an interesting item.”
It was a large photograph, some decades old, of a strapping,. grinning, coal-black African in mettlesome coition with an ostrich. I gazed at it for a long time, bemus
“Sex is the last frontier,” he was saying somewhere behind me. “In art as in life, Peter, sex is the only area left where men can find full expression of their individuality, full freedom. Where men can cast off the constrictions and conventions of society and regain their identity as humans. And I don’t mean any dreary, dry little middle-class grope and spasm, either. I mean the total exploration of sex, as Sade envisioned it, and which makes a library like this so important to the psyche, and so rewarding. It’s what you might call le nouveau libertinage. Because, you see, it was Sade’s revolutionary concept, his genius, to see man not as what he is supposed to be—an inhumanly noble creature whose nobility is a pseudo-nobility simply because he is hemmed in and made warped and sick in an impossible attempt to free himself of his animal nature—but as he is, and forever will be: a thinking biological complex which, whether rightly or wrongly, exists in a world of frustrating sexual fantasy, the bottling-up of which is the direct cause of at least half of the world’s anguish and misery. It’s a strange paradox, Peter, that Sade should become synonymous with all that is cruel and causes pain, when in reality he was the original psychoanalyst of the modern age, seeing more evil in the fruitless repression of sex, and more pain, too, than in what to him was the simple answer to that repression, and the panacea—release from the fantasy world, and the working out of sex on a functioning, active level. And again that doesn’t mean some tepid little convulsion in the dark. It means group interplay, for one thing—and there’s no one alive who hasn’t yearned at one time or another for community sex—and the free airing of bisexual impulses, among other things, and the final orgiastic purgation which has been a cleansing aspect of the human experience, at least among those humans who have been bold enough to break convention, since the dawn of recorded history. And it’s going to be the future major crisis in art. Because only when the sexual act is able to be portrayed in art—in prose and in painting, and on the stage (though I’ll admit that’s a problem)—then and only then will we have any kind of freedom. Because for one thing—”
Brooding over the outlandish picture, I had become wildly tickled in a helpless in-dwelling fashion, and I felt chuckles of laughter rising up in me and I turned around and let out a loud yuck, finally, which caused Mason to halt in mid-sentence, eyes level upon me.
“What’s so funny?” he said in an irritated voice. And as he spoke, the words he had been saying, so solemnly and with such passion, registered upon my mind belatedly, abruptly, as if a door had been thrown briskly open to let it all shamble in.
“Oh I don’t know, Mason,” I said, still grinning. “You aren’t serious about all this, are you? I’ve always thought sex was a lot of fun—wonderful, great, fabulous. The best thing on earth. But you seem to want to turn it into a cult, and a gloomy one at that.”
“You reveal yourself, dollbaby,” he said. His voice was airy, but a touch of irritation remained. “At its greatest, sex has always been a cult. Nurtured and refined like any other high art.” With a thin smile he removed the ostrich picture from my hand. “Squarest of the squares,” he added affably.
“A matter of taste, Mason,” I said.
But these two photographs—the one with Carole, and the one with Celia—still haunt me; they are as mnemonic as a fragrance, a scrap of music, a familiar voice which has not been heard for many years. I turn back to the first one, trying to extract its mood, comprehend it, place it in time—then all of a sudden (perhaps it’s only the memory in turn of the ostrich that does it, or the bedroom full of Swedes) I know what it is and I know what it means. Like one of those trick effects in the movies where for a long instant the scene becomes motionless—a skier suspended in mid-air, a diver rigid in a somersault or a comic prat fall with legs and arms stilled in frozen chaos above the floor—then once again rolls on, this picture suddenly achieves movement; indeed now, with very little effort of the imagination I am able to persuade myself that I am no longer viewing the scene, but am within it as I was so long ago, that my hand moves back just a bit, fidgeting, as, still half-blinded by the flashbulb, I watch Carole’s protuberant bulb of a tongue reach Mason’s neck and linger there, wet and fluttering, while at the same moment her well-fleshed paw steals forth to unzip his fly. Shades of the divine Marquis! How, after Mason’s dilations upon “group interplay” several nights before, it never occurred to me, until it was almost too late, that he had brought me to an orgy, mystified me then as it mystifies me now; I can only say in all honesty that I must have known, or suspected, that it was going to be one, and that deep down I desired orgiastic purgation, too.
Our host that evening, in a large, flossy apartment near Washington Square, was a famous young playwright called Harvey Glansner. Immediately after the war he achieved an astonishing success on Broadway with a play that with great courage, insight, and pity had laid bare, in terms of a lower-class New York family, the neurotic agony of our time. Then he had had several failures in a row, which in America, especially on Broadway, is the equivalent of the grave. Thereafter, to the distress of many who still saw in him the hope of American drama, his talent had gone to pieces; he took to writing a knotty kind of prose—articles mainly for the small quarterlies—in which he hymned and extolled the then burgeoning signs of juvenile delinquency, psychopaths, rapists, pimps, dope addicts and other maladjusted wretches until, finally descending into a sort of semicoherent pornography, he became unreadable (though not, as I expect he wished to be, unpunishable), except by a rather specialized intellectual in-group which applauded any sort of wicked stir, no matter how puerile. He wrote much about the solemnity of the orgasm, its lack and its pain, and its relationship to God. With all of this, he was a gifted writer, even after his fall from Broadway grace, and he might have found more general favor except for the fact that all of his essays gave to sex a reference of horror, discomfort and disgust: you may sentimentalize sex by confusing it with love, and still be read, but if you equate sex with unpleasurableness, you may expect your audience to be obscure, whether your bias is puritan or pornographic. “Like Dante, Harvey’s a real hater,” Mason said, adding that he was writing a biography called Karl Marx: Giant in Orgasm. I think it was from this Glansner that Mason drew his erotic inspiration. A pimply-faced, cadaverous young man, with a pot belly, beaked nose, and horn-rims, Glansner greeted us at the door with a meaningful (though to me, then, meaningless) smirk, and passed out the marijuana. I should describe the cast, which for an orgy I suppose was a meager one, though maybe not. There were eight of us—the forever-present Pennypackers, foxy as ever; Glansner and his wife, a sinuous golden-haired beauty with harlequin glasses, whose name I forget; and, as a kind of anchor man, myself, accompanied by a girl named Lila—whom Mason had dug up for me—a ripe and amiable stripper who from the beginning seemed far more knowing and dubious about the setup than I, drawing me aside early (it was not hard to do, for the sound of jazz was deafening and blue lightbulbs everywhere cast on each distant face a bruised, mortuary gloom) and saying, to my puzzlement: “Don’t let on now, baby, but I think I smell a fish.”
Now then, like many hectic recollections this one comes back to me in bits and flickers—blue lights, howling saxophones and the bittersweet odor of marijuana predominating. Glansner meandered back and forth for a while, snapping pictures with a huge Graflex. I think it was then that Carole went through the routine with Mason’s fly, only to be chided by him for her crudeness. Eschewing the weed, which seemed to have almost no effect on me, I stuck to a little red wine, and for most of the time sat hip to hip with Lila on a large white leather ottoman. Jazz, the music not of fusion but of fission, was a constant explosion in my face, and when it ceased, to allow the record-changer to softly whir and plip-plop, the silence was eerie and burdensome, and I recall wondering at the tone of this gathering, which from the outset had the mingled features of despair, hostility, and the deplorable inertia of a meeting of southern Baptist young people. I have since learned that marijuana stills the desir
I wish I could go into more generous detail about this orgy, but at just about this point the whole affair—for me, anyway, and for Lila—began to terminate. Outside of Mason’s pelvic work the only overt sexual act I stayed long enough to witness was between the Pennypackers, who climbed atop each other on a couch and, fully clothed, went through some frantic copulatory motions which, since they were married, brought from the others lazy, tolerant sniggers of laughter, as one might laugh at children who know the rudiments but nothing of the spirit of the game, and are also a bit touchingly anxious. A little later, while Mason danced, Glansner was nuzzling Carole in the shadows, muttering to her in a strange you-all, cotton-picking dialect (a few years later this became known as hip talk, but I did not know it at the time); the words he crooned drowsily were the gamiest in the language, and there was a compulsive, metronomic desolation in the way he said them that chilled me to the marrow, but if he calculated them to excite, and if my Lila was any barometer, he had made a serious miscalculation. Lila was a big healthy girl with a fine elastic bosom; she had been around, and there was no nonsense about her. When I turned to her—more than smelling that fish now—she said in a low voice: “I stopped smoking pot when I was sixteen years old. Somebody ought to tell that poor square to grow up and stop diddling himself. Does he think he’s giving her kicks? Look out, honey, here comes trouble.” The Pennypackers, down off their couch, were slithering toward us; we rose in unison, Lila and I, self-protectively, and danced off through the gloom, hugging the walls. “When I was performing in London,” she said, “they called a deal like this a nahsty. Which is just about exactly the word for it. Mason should have better sense. I’m a good party girl, but this is strictly not my cup of tea. What does he think I am, anyway, some sort of tart?” And then she pressed close. “Let’s get out of here, baby, and have something good and private.”
Set This House on Fire by William Styron / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes