Set this house on fire, p.33
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       Set This House on Fire, p.33

           William Styron
 

  “You know, you can’t work without faith, and, boy, I was as faithless as an alleycat. Godalmighty, the rationalizations I used, and the lies! I told myself I had no talent, you see; that was the first evasion. Yet, hell, I knew I had talent, knew it in my soul, knew it as well as I know my own name. I had it, there was no getting around it, and the knowledge that I had it and wouldn’t use it or was afraid to use it or refused to use it just made my misery that much worse. Hell, I knew I could paint rings around anyone —at least of my own age and experience. Anyone! Yet in front of a sketch pad or a canvas I was like a man who had suddenly had both hands chopped off at the wrist. Completely paralyzed, I was. And I’d go snooping around the galleries or a modern show at the Orangerie and sneer and snicker and pooh-pooh all the amateurish stuff I saw—just like some miserable little fag or a dilettante—yet deep down I was hurting: boy, I was hurting! For at least they had produced something, and I was still a mean little cesspool of bitter, pent-up, frustrated, hopeless desires. Well, you know you still have to have reasons. So, when I examined myself and found that the no-talent excuse wouldn’t go, I dreamed up all sorts of other answers: the time was out of joint, society was against me, painting had been supplanted by photography anyway, all of that. Boy, Kinsolving pitted against Kinsolving, what a dreary battle! Anyway, I couldn’t work. I was perfectly blocked, dammed up like the inside of some miserable, pussy eardrum, and hurting like crazy. But it would have taken all the flics in Paris to drag me to a brain-healer, which I guess is what I needed.”

  “We Christians have to stick together,” I said facetiously.

  “It’s not a matter of being Christian,” he said, “it’s a matter of common sense. Unless a man’s gone completely berserk, he’s got to work out these problems for himself, that’s all. It’s a matter of pride. Besides, I knew a nut doctor once—not Slotkin, but a real phony—on the psycho ward of that naval hospital I told you about I was in, right after the war. This guy, I’ll swear before God, could barely count to ten. He had a tiny little brow about a quarter of an inch high and a red nose and hair sticking out of his ears, and the only other thing I remember about him is that he had never even heard of Daumier. Pronounced it Dow-Myer, like some bleeding psychological test. Jesus, how could a guy like that ever get together with somebody who had my problems—at least the ones I had in Paris? Anyway, to go back to where it all started: all this pressure was in me, as I’ve said. There I was in the most beautiful —no, second most, Florence has the edge—city on earth, all in a sweat and fever to capture something, to get it down, to crystallize it, to preserve it, leave a record or something, and I had no more ability to do it than some blind old dropsical eunuch of ninety-five. What a setup, what a perfect way to become a whiskey-head! Well, I plunged in head-on. And that started me off on this jag—well, you know how it ended. I don’t know how it came on—gradually, I guess, but the first thing I knew it had me squarely by the balls. You should have seen me, boy—no, I remember you did. But if I was bad in Sambuco, in Paris I was even worse, maybe because it hadn’t beaten me down yet and I could just take on a bigger load. I was like some bleeding camel who’d just staggered in off the Gobi with a big hump waiting to be filled to the brim. God, the stuff I put away! If there’s such a thing in lushdom as being a nymphomaniac about booze, I was it—a regular hard-on I had for the stuff, half-insane, I guess, like some fat repulsive little kid turned loose in a soda fountain. Ah, I don’t even want to think about it.”

  We sat in silence for a minute, but obviously he wanted to go on.

  “Dragged me, that’s the way it felt. I felt like I was dragged to Sambuco. And I still don’t know whether or not I might just be imagining the whole thing: it could have been a series of coincidences, after all, which in the end just seems to add up to one thing. Anyway, visualize once again the Kinsolvings in Paris. Are you conjuring it up, boy? Well, visualize this: a top-floor studio on a sad dusty little side street not far from the Gare Montparnasse, a big room where elephant vines cast these trembling jade shapes of light. It is a Sunday afternoon in the late spring of the year. There is the fragrance of bread in the air, and of sadness too, because Paris always smells sad even when she is most sunny and beautiful. That’s the God’s truth. There is a dog barking down on the street. Upstairs there is a sound of chaos and havoc. Entrons. Behold the occupants of this noisy den. First there is Poppy—née Pauline Shannon—Kinsolving, the chatelaine of the house, sci-oness of a large Delaware family—not the du Ponts, regrettably—unique in all this world in her strange blend of childish wisdom and elfin (Christ, I hate that word!) charm, the pride and joy and despair of her husband’s life—sweet-souled, generous, loving, and the world’s most catastrophic housewife. She is dressed only in a pink slip. Her hair is festooned with aluminum curlers. With one hand she offers a bottle to an infant in a bassinet (Nicky, just born by Caesarean section), and with her voice she is shrieking at three children who romp in pandemonium through the steaming room around her. Let’s see: they are eight, five … No, Peggy must have been six then. Anyway, to hell with it. They are beautiful noisy children and they so resemble their mother that she is often mistaken for their sister. Poppy is screeching at the top of her voice. ‘Children!’ she yells. ‘Children! Children! Be qui-yut! Yull scare the baby!’ Her words avail her not; she has no more control over her offspring than she would have over a pack of timber wolves. In despair she rolls her eyes, turns, drops the ice-cream cone she has been licking and screams in desperation to her husband. ‘Cass!’ she cries. ‘Make them shuddup!’”

  He paused for a moment. Then, “That Poppy,” he said, with a soft wry chuckle. “Boy, she took a lot of crap from me, and all without a murmur hardly. She’s Catholic, as you know, and I—well, I don’t know what I am, or was, but I surer’n hell wasn’t a Catholic, and I guess I used this religion of hers as a sort of scapegoat for all my meanness. Actually I had quite a religious background myself, and I’d forsaken it about as completely as you can get (still have, for that matter) but at the time I must have built up a whole lot of guilt about it, a real head of steam. My father was a minister, you know. Well, after he and my mother were run down by this train in Rich Square, North Carolina—I was ten at the time —this old uncle of mine took me over and brought me up. He and my aunt were Methodists, real pious and all, and he always wanted me to become a minister because his dear wife’s brother had been one, and because of tradition and all. But I wanted to be a painter. I didn’t want to become some dewlapped young fraud hobnobbing with the seraphim, and swapping the sweat of my palm each Sunday with a flock of usurers and bankers, and softening my brain telling a bunch of used-car dealers how righteous they were. So I didn’t. So after the war, when I was going to art school in New York, I met Poppy. Love at first sight. Her family had a little dough, which didn’t hurt any, either. Anyway, she tick-led the hell out of me. She was on her way to flunking out of her first year at Vassar, not because she’s dumb, you know, but be-cause—well, I think she was a little what you might call ethereal for that kind of setup, and anyway I fell for her like a carload of bricks, Catholicism and all. I didn’t realize at the time how I’d start to use this really mean backlog of ignorant Protestant prejudice against her, bludgeoning her with it to shore up my own inadequacy. It must have been horrible for her sometimes. I should have been taken out and shot.

  “Anyway, to get back to Paris … Let us examine the old man, this terrible blob, the master of the house—this vegetable, this wreck, this painter without portfolio. Half-supine, he lolls against the pillows of a shabby day bed, a cigarette dangling, àl’ Apache, from his lips, a bottle of very low-class cognac suspended in his hand. He is reading a copy of … oh, I guess Confidential. Or Front Page Detective, or Wink, or Whisper, or any of a couple dozen darling American magazines I used to pick up in this store on the rue du Bac. That was how low I’d sunk. Anyway, regard him again, this newt, this ox. Poppy shrieks again. ‘Cass! The baby’s got stummick trouble and you j
ust lie there! Cass, do something!’ He obviously hears her, for he stirs and groans, and a flicker of annoyance, if not of actual displeasure, passes across his spongy features. Without saying a word, he continues to pluck through his catalogue of white thighs and white tits and ripe round behinds. Poppy shrieks again, the dog howls on the street, the children dance and scream. Over all, the repulsive odor of boiling turnips. At last, just as this … this frail young maiden’s voice reaches its terrible shrill crescendo, a pot falls from the stove in a roar and a splash and an explosion of steam. The ox heaves to his feet. And stands there, bellowing. ‘Get out of this goddam house, you pack of slimy maggots!’ he roars. ‘At once! All of you!’ he shouts, gazing glassy-eyed at the beautiful children, fruit of his loins. ‘All of you goddam people, out of here! Jump in the river! Die! Get run over! Out of here! Stay out! Stay out! Get out of here and stay out, do you hear, before I turn on the gas!’ He sends them packing, all right. Babbling hysterically, the whole brood sobbing and bawling with fright and panic, they flee down the stairs and into the street. Poppy is so frightened that she puts her skirt on backwards and is shaking so that she can scarcely get through the door with the poor colicky baby in her arms… .” He paused.

  “And then—?”

  “Ah well,” he said, in a leveler tone. “It was gruesome. You know, the great trouble with self-disgust is not the ruination it works on oneself—though that’s bad enough—but the way it so easily can begin to upset other people’s lives. Oh, I’d had difficult times with Poppy off and on—who the hell who’s married hasn’t? —but this was the first time I’d ever done something like that. It was sickening, really; and what I’d really done, it’s plain enough to see, was to simply turn the loathing I felt for myself outward upon Poppy and the children. Ah God, it was sickening! Once in Sam-buco, during one of my better—or sober—periods, I remember I awoke from a dream. I can’t recall this particular dream, except that it had a written message for me. It was one of the strangest dreams I ever had, because it was as if some fruity old moralist of the subconscious had risen up and written in chalk this maxim right straight across my brain. For a moment I thought I was the reincarnation of some great philosopher, it all seemed so perfectly true. It went like this: ‘To triumph over self is to triumph over Death. It is to triumph over that beast which one’s self interposes between one’s soul and one’s God.’ It’s true as hell, you know. Anyway, I had no such notions or insights there in Paris. Self. Self! God, I was a regular puddle of self. I mean I felt I could hear—almost see—every contraction of my ulcerous stomach, and watch my kidneys straining away and sieving out all the crud, and see the loops of my intestines slick and gray and sweaty in their battle against all the poison I was guzzling down, and my bronchial tubes all filthy with French cigarettes, and my brain! My poor old aching, suffering brain! God, I was a mess. Of self. Conscious of nothing in the world so much as my own miserable ambulating corpuscles.

  “Well, that day I suppose I got as low as I could get. Later that day, anyway. I remember that after they had left I went to the window and watched them scampering down the street. Whenever I think of it now it near about breaks my heart, but at the time, as I say, I was in a perfect alcoholic fog, absolutely unmoved by the picture: Poppy, not much bigger than a mouse, with the baby in her arms, hustling down the street with its dusty springtime light—a real Utrillo street—and the kids tagging and galloping after, all of them heading for God knows where. Then they were gone around a corner. They were gone, and I was alone in the house, sort of sagging there with my nauseating self. I had an old beat-up record player at the time—you saw it in Sambuco. A man can’t live properly, of course, without music. Even though music itself, when abused, is a form of corruption. I remember reading somewhere in The Republic a passage where Plato says that in the ideal State music will have to be curtailed and regulated by law, its appeal is so powerful—it’s so likely to dope the spirit. There’s truth in that, I know, because at the time along with all the booze I was using music as a sort of—oh, an auxiliary drug, which gave me even bigger kicks and let me tear loose my emotions. Just like everything else that’s good you’ve got to use music wisely. Anyway, as I say, I had this record player that I’d picked up at the Flea Market for a few thousand francs, and I’d oiled it and fixed it up. It played loud as hell. It was a scratchy hoarse monster but I had a few records: The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni and some early Haydn and Christian Bach and the St. Matthew Passion and a Palestrina mass and—oh yes, I had an ancient Leadbelly album with about every record held together by Scotch tape. Old Leadbelly. Every time I heard ‘The Midnight Special’ I got right back to Carolina. Anyway—So that day, I remember, after they had gone —gone forever at that moment, for all I cared or knew—I opened another bottle of this crummy brandy and got my Magic Flute out and put it on and staggered around the joint for a while, hating myself, hating Poppy and my own glands and the life-force or whatever it was that caused me to produce such a useless, snotty-nosed, colicky tribe, and I began to trip over things—one of Poppy’s galoshes or some goddam toy—and I fetched it a lick with my foot, and missed, and kicked the wall, which almost broke my toe, and that set me to stamping around again and cursing and hating myself even more, as if I was caught up in some endless circle of selfloathing and venom and meanness. Well, I began to simmer down —gradually, I guess—most likely the music was stealing into my bones, and I took another terrific slug out of the bottle, and then—I remember the moment so clear and plain—I walked over to the window. Now, ever since—well, ever since I’ve straightened out, or whatever you want to call it—I’ve tried to figure out what was happening to me at the time, inside of my body, that is. I’ve thought about it and I’ve read about it, and the only conclusion that I’ve been able to come to is that these—well, these visions I had were not psychic, that is, they weren’t mystical or supernatural or anything except the simple fact that I was a soggy lush-head in whose scrambled brain all sorts of hallucinations could happen—must happen, in fact. I don’t mean the D.T.’s, either. It’s a simple fact that when you set out, as I had been doing, to destroy yourself and don’t eat, preferring instead to slop down each day about two quarts of swill lacking vitamins, minerals, calories, corpuscles, humors, gray matter, or any other substance necessary to both health and sanity—when you do this, I say, and flog your lungs with Gauloises Bleues (and cheap cigars) and stumble about the streets of Paris breathing the fumes of incinerated gasoline and get so low as I did, I swear, so depleted and exhausted, that even the old pecker refuses to twitch at the most wildly pornographic fantasy—when you’re in this state, all I’m trying to say is that some kind of hallucination, some kind of weird displacement of the mind, is not only likely, but bound to happen.

  “As I say, I remember going to the window. It was a spring afternoon, warm, full of pollen; you could almost touch the air and have it turn to yellow dust in your fingers. Then there were these elephant vines, huge and green and tropical. These shiny harmless little ladybugs—the French have a wonderful name for them, bêtes à, Bon Dieu—they were swarming all over the leaves, so that when I bent closely down to watch them, watching these spotted black backs and russet-colored glossy wings, with the great green leaves behind, they looked like some strange surrealistic armadillos crawling through a jungle. A big golden spider had built a web in the crotch of one of the vines, and I wondered why she hadn’t trapped any of the ladybugs, until I remembered that ladybugs are supposed to secrete a smell or something that’s repulsive to spiders. Well, I stood there for a long while looking at the leaves and the ladybugs, smelling bread baking down below, listening to the music. And then finally, in a sort of doze, and with all my hatred and poison lost for the moment, or forgotten, I looked up. And I’ll swear at the moment as I looked up it was as if I were gazing into the kingdom of heaven. I don’t know quite how to describe it—this bone-breaking moment of loveliness. I was almost sick with desire and yearning for what I saw. It wa
s only this same street in Paris, of course, this sad and nondescript Paris street with its leaning gables and tarnished doorknobs and weatherworn, filigreed lamp posts, and a shabby plane tree or two, and now an old woman had come out of a door massaging her hands, and there was a dog vanishing into an alleyway. Way down the street was the wall of the Montparnasse Cemetery and above it the sky rose up blue, blue, and now there were pigeons up there, a great flight of sun-flecked wings, all wheeling around in space. And over all this the sense of afternoon, of Sunday, of spring, of tranquillity and repose. And behind me in the room Mozart splashing away, mad and sane and tender and—what?—good! Brought straight down from the Maker of us all! Ah my God, how can I describe it! It wasn’t just the scene, you see—it was the sense, the bleeding essence of the thing. It was as if I had been given for an instant the capacity to understand not just beauty itself by its outward signs, but the other—the elsen&ss in beauty, this continuity of beauty in the scheme of all life which triumphs even to the point of taking in sordidness and shabbiness and ugliness, which goes on and on and on, and of which this was only a moment, I guess, divinely crystallized. God, the magic of that moment! What was it, really? I just don’t know—the weakness, the light-headedness, the booze, the vertigo. Yet it was there, and for the first time—the first moment of reality I think I had ever known. And the strange thing was that it was in the midst of this, in the midst of a time when I was most wrapped up in self and squalor and meanness, I had a presentiment of selflessness: I mean, it was as if the crummy little street had been for an instant transformed into some grand, gay boulevard of my own spirit, where I no longer walked alone, but where so many countless generations of lovers and old women and dogs and children had walked, and where there would walk generations of lovers and old women and dogs and children yet unborn. It was no longer a street that I was watching; the street was inside my very flesh and bones, you see, and for a moment I was released from my own self, embracing all that was within the street and partaking of all that happened there in time gone by, and now, and time to come. And it filled me with the craziest sort of joy… .”

 
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