Death is terribly tactful. It comes to a man when he finally realizes that he understands nothing, thus saving his face. Watched back to front, like the videocassette that you know is on fast rewind when you see the hooker paying the client, life is a gradual shedding of obsolescent platitudes, a quiet letting go of truths discredited by events, a delicate parting of the ways with what were once one’s guiding preconceptions. Among these is one’s view of compromise generally and of the compromises that mark the relationship between the sexes in particular.
As in the symbiosis of work and play, the arterial system through which our certainties course, and where our vacillations are oxygenated, is volition—that is, a person’s inner conviction that the choice he is making is untrammeled by anything anterior to his will. A man may be happy to jump on the trampoline all day long provided nobody’s holding a gun to his head, because otherwise we think he has every right to regard this bit of harmless fun as a form of torture under the Geneva Conventions.
The diabolical twist to the compromise of love is that it suits a commercial civilization to equate wealth with liberty. Of all such self-serving definitions—to the effect that the acquisition of wealth is success, that success thus adjudged is virtue, that virtue accrued on account of success is wisdom, and so on—it is by far the most dastardly or pernicious, in that its psychological action is based on the species of deception zoologists term aggressive mimicry, whereby the predator adopts the physical characteristics of the prey. As this piece of sophistry has the vast ovum of an evolved and complex—I nearly said rich—culture, as reassuringly Western in its modes as it is comfortably Christian in its manners, behind it with all its immense weight, it obviously takes a rare and brave nonconformist, a stubborn transvaluer of values, a walker on the razor’s edge, to dare gainsay it without slipping on one of its elliptical etceteras. In healthier, intellectually more average and socially better adapted minds, the deception works like the door of a prison cell, with a picture of a bathing beauty and a sign such as BROTHEL winking above it in colored lights, into which the trusting victim rushes of his own accord. Put another way, the gull takes the Devil’s shilling for the sake of the very caprices—a silk foulard, a glorious night out, a girl’s sincere affection—which his having enlisted as a lifelong conscript enjoins him from ever indulging.
Ah, what a cheap, dirty, no-good swindle that is, but how well it works. In my second year of university, I dreamed of meeting a girl called Mary. Hi, I’m Mary. No, I could not dream of meeting her, because she was a blonde and a goddess and I was a nobody, and what I actually dreamed about was a less ordered universe, one in which a nobody could imagine whatever he liked without being weighed down by the sheer absurdity of it, at least not straightaway. I remember telling a friend over lunch in college, as Mary was sweeping by with a glass of milk on an empty tray, listen, why are life’s injustices so convoluted? Why must I give up all hope of seeing the girl’s lips move in the utterance of her name for the apparently irrelevant reason that here and now, with her hair up, she looks like Venus in Botticelli’s famous allegory of spring?
Not 48 hours later I was in bed with her. In bed with Mary. Had I been at Syracuse by Archimedes’ side when the foot of the Roman soldier came down on those drawings of his in the sand, had I seen the great library of Alexandria go up in flames or heard Trotsky call for the churches of Holy Russia to be razed to the ground, I could not have conceived of an act of sacrilege more senseless, but the fact was that we had met, and she became my college sweetheart. It took me less than 48 hours to convince myself that all’s as it should be; that somehow I’ve managed to split the difference between a nobody and a goddess; that, if the girl wants me, there must be a reason for it; and so, instead of making a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the nearest shrine of Venus, upon bare knees and up a mountain path strewn with broken rock, I started living with Mary as though living with Mary was a human right under the aforesaid Conventions.
Mary and I. Once this absurdity had worked itself loose and got taken for granted, others began to jostle for acceptance in my mind. Why shouldn’t I spend my days reading the Oxford English Dictionary? Why shouldn’t I absent myself, if only to take long walks, to write poems, to look in shop windows? And why should I write poems only about her? Ah, that pair of incubi, why should I and why shouldn’t I, dialectical claws of Satan, furtive shadows in the moonlit walk of God’s every garden!
And why, now that she was mine in body and soul I was asking myself, why should I entwine my destiny with hers so completely and irrevocably? Poor Mary. Because she was poor, and so was I. A life with her, given the familiar inevitability of children and a job to support them, meant the death of everything but her within me, though eventually, as I reasoned in what can only be described as a reasoning fit, it would also mean my death within her, because a frustrated, embittered, failed writer is of no use to anybody, least of all to the woman for whose sake he has never tried his luck. Now, if one of us had had money, it would have been all different, wouldn’t it, because wealth is liberty. Money buys nannies and the time to think, it entertains the wife and placates the husband, it clears the air and perfumes the water . . . Elliptical etcetera. And so, at some point before leaving university, having reasoned that he travels the fastest who travels alone, I liberated myself from Mary by sleeping with her best friend.
It isn’t a very original story, but, as lawyers say, it goes to motivation.