The School of Love
Rocking back and forward in his armchair while he manicured his fingernails, he found it pleasantly titillating to imagine the girl - she had not even told him her name -clinging to him under the blossoming apple trees as a gentle breeze wafted over them, or in the evening, gliding homewards over the water, her quivering body pressed against his in the narrow boat. 'Tant pis pour elle', he said as he stood up, throwing the nail-scissors in an arc towards the table. 'I'm not running after her. There are plenty more like that.
In fact, it was a piece of luck. Good-natured as he was, and with his inability to resist any mood, the most that would have come of it would have been some banal entanglement. The one thing that was certain was that she was not his style
No, she was not his ideal woman, not even a distant cousin a hundred times removed. Now, as he threw off his dressing gown and settled down in front of the mirror, legs spread-eagled over the cushion, to work on the masterpiece of his toilette, carefully twisting his locks into dreamy curls, drawing out the proud lance of his Vandyke, long, very long, with much brilliantine, and subjecting himself to a loving and satisfied scrutiny, now, once again, his ideal appeared before him with almost tangible clarity, so imperial and junoesque; and then this shy, innocent swallow beside her, the image of Gerard's Psyche, yes, really, even - he remembered - the same ringlets in her hair, at the front, falling down over her forehead. No, there was no comparison; she might well be very sweet, for modest requirements, but he, unfortunately, was already spoken for, sorry and all that.
He lingered for a long time among these pleasant images because, in accordance with his bad habit, he lingered for a long time in front of the mirror, until his mane was finally tamed and his elaborate cravat, with its multicoloured, fluttering points, was tied in its artistic knot. He burst out laughing when he saw from the clock that he had once again wasted two hours prettifying himself - like a cocotte, his friends said, only she makes a profit out of it. They could not get over his vanity.
But no, his was not the common vanity they imagined. Yes, he loved dressing up, and he was happy if he could wear something different, something out of the ordinary, striking and amusing. Yes, he did have a luxurious lace shirt with a soft, broad, turn-down collar, with glorious embroidery such as would have made old d'Aubrevilly green with envy. And yes, he did have a pearl-grey sombrero with a huge brim, such as only the proudest Andalusian picador would wear, so that some people took him for a porter from les Halles. But he did not wear them to please the crowd, nor did he calculate on attracting women's glances. It was just that he was tormented by the desire to differentiate himself from the rest in his external appearance, just as he knew how incomparably different he was in his inner being. He was different from the rest, why should he not appear so? And every day he needed this reassurance, this confirmation, to counter his pressing doubts as to whether he really was one of a kind and did not belong to the mass. How else could he ever perfect his art?
Moody they called him. Yes, why did they not leave him alone, why were they always interfering with him, and why did everyone try to mould him, and everyone want to change him, and everyone want to force him to follow their own prescription, why was no one happy with him as he was! Then of course he ended up losing all his sang-froid and beating his wings against the floor and ceiling, bemused, fluttering round in circles by fits and starts, staggering about in mortal fear of the constant, unceasing drumming and hammering against all the bars of the cage, an infernal din. Why could they not leave him as he was -truly, a modest desire - why not let him follow his own nature, listen to his own wishes, obey his own intentions, why could they not let him be? This was what had spoilt him, this alone and no fault of his, that everywhere - tyranny of the outside world, nothing other than this eternal tyranny, stupid, coarse, imperious, was lying in wait for him in a thousand ambushes, now attacking him like a brigand with open violence, now treacherously camouflaged in flattering counsel, garbed in sympathy and friendship, but unyielding in its daily attacks; no wonder he had finally succumbed to this persecution mania with which he tormented himself and others, bewildered, distrustful, suspicious of the whole world.
* * * *
Bondage and service - that was what they all demanded, and from everyone. This craving to find themselves in another, to subjugate and appropriate foreign territory, to create a new field for their own will in a second body, foreign flesh for their own soul; this greedy, consuming hunger devoured every other desire, and they called it friendship! And he, who was fainting with this nameless longing for a real friend, he who, instead of always wanting only to take, would have surrendered to a friend and enriched his soul instead of pillaging it with fire and sword, like some insatiable vampire!
Alone, alone - why would they not leave one alone? Was there not pain enough without one having to suffer this cruel, merciless torture, all life through, this bitter, tormenting nausea at those around one? But their meddling fingers tore him apart, and he could see no hope and despaired, and often they spoilt even animals for him, even things, in fact everything that was not a product of his mind.
Yes, finally all this had brought him to a state where he hated everything that was not of his own imagining. He could not bear it. And he remembered that insignificant things, ridiculously insignificant things had unleashed a rabid fury within him - a tune whistled in the street that stuck in his ear, frightening away his own thoughts and resisting all his attempts to shake it off, to drive it out; or a longed-for letter which just would not come with the post, even though it had long since arrived in his imagination; or when he was held up by the crush of people at a counter, while in his mind he had already completed the business; all these endless, loathsome memories, every day, so that he was never alone, was never free.
Then sometimes he was overcome with the feeling that he wanted to smash everything to pieces, all around, to lay waste to every sign of life with fire and sword, to raze to the ground like the Vandals all traces of others, just to put an end to this perpetual, insupportable ordering about by people and things, to create a desert around him, a still, silent desert.
Alone, alone - somewhere high up in the ice or deep down on the bed of the bellowing sea, where none of the insistent noise of everyday life could reach him and he would be safe from the coarse, grasping claws of others! Ordinary, common people - yes, they might be able to put up with their selfbeing stolen and replaced with an alien, they did not need their self. But the artist-how could he live without this tool of his craft?
Clearly it was the artist, the artist within him, from which all this suffering came. This comforted him and awoke within him an almost cosy mental image in which he wearily wrapped himself up on the heavy, wide, luxurious divan, above which his wild Japanese masks looked out with their mocking grins, their shaggy horsehair moustaches and twisted mouths. It comforted him because it could not be called suffering if it was a sign of art. Yes, clearly, the artist within him, the artist . . . he never tired of repeating it in order to reassure himself. Of course others did not have this sense of self, so fervent and boundless, nor this dogged defiance the moment anything tried to approach it, nor this mortal fear, breathless and feverish, of losing it. They did not care whether they possessed it or not, because they never made use of it, could easily do without it and not even notice. They could be happy. But the artist!?
True, it was a comfort because it satisfied his pride, but he could not conceal from himself the logical conclusion that this meant his suffering was unavoidable, without help, hopeless, not mere chance, which might change, but necessary, unalterable fate, if it came not from the malice of the world, but from himself and his art. And that again annoyed him, not the fact that it was so, but that he knew it. That took the heart out of him, all his power of decision and even his cheerful hatred of mankind and the world, which at least provided, mingled with hope and sorrow as it was, some pleasant exercise for the soul. As long as he deceived himself about the truth, he could blame fortune and have confidence in the future. Now the clouds of madness were closing round his mind.
But it was one of his unfortunate habits, which he could never escape however many resolutions he made, to spend whole days on the sofa, swinging up and down on the trapeze of his thoughts, to dizzier and dizzier heights, and to insist on poking round in his brain, probing deeper and deeper, right down to its hidden roots. This curiosity about himself was something he had had since his youth, and of course it was the artist again, always the artist, who never tired of thus hearing his confession every day and of exploring every corner of his conscience. But how else could he have any hope of eventually discovering the great mystery that was sleeping and would not wake, somewhere deep down in the depths of his soul.
So he explored, explored within himself, scanning himself with a lamp, as if it were not himself at all but some
strange monster that he had been commanded to guard. Holding his breath and leaning forward in concentration, he listened, to see whether the miracle would happen and it would finally show signs of life. In the meantime at least he recorded every detail of what he found, in order to assure himself that he really was an exceptional individual, a superior nature, an homme d'elite.
Thus he put his soul in front of the mirror, combed it out and groomed it.
It was too late to start anything before dinner.
Reading: nothing but obscenities and idiocies; he knew them off by heart.
Up and down, to and fro. Smoking, smoking. At least tobacco kept its promises, that was one thing that was still honest and true - smoking, smoking.
Start again from the beginning, that breathless trek through his thoughts?
Must he always, always be thinking? Those rosebuds outside, they had no thoughts. But they gave off their scent and they would bloom.
A woman, a woman! Whatever Marius might say. It was all very well for him to advocate cocottes, a different one every night, never the same one twice - yes, when one had reached the same stage as him! But he was nowhere near that, thank God... unfortunately. A woman, a woman!
Then he would have peace, would have some rest. That would be bliss, bliss!
Work, as long as the mood flowed. Then, when it came to a halt, away with the paints on the spot to go out with the little woman, out, one day into the country, the next dancing, but always finding oblivion.
Sometimes he was so tired of the eternal struggle, so sick of his eternal cravings. He longed for the bliss of a quiet, undemanding friendship. And most of his socks had holes in them, as well.
The only snag was the beginning, until everything was running smoothly: looking round, searching, taking trouble, wavering, deciding on one, then deciding on another.
It was a nuisance that she had not come back with him. But to wait for a week and then rush to a rendezvous that, perhaps, she had already forgotten by now - well, perhaps if he were head over heels in love!
But he could write, it suddenly occurred to him; he would write to her as he had promised. A long, detailed letter that would fill in the hour that he still had before it was time for his absinthe. A crazy love-letter. Was he still up to it? One didn't forget that easily how to lie.
It amused him. He chose the most delightful declarations and sought out the most precious gems of language. From these he composed such a beseeching prayer to his guardian angel, of such fervour and humility, that when he read it he was moved to tears of pity for himself. Let him see one of those novelists do that, and they were paid for it! He really had the gift, though only on paper. Face to face he was awkward and embarrassed; it put him off that they would not keep quiet and let him work himself up into the right mood, gradually, from one sentence to the next.
The letter contained a lot of flattery and a lot of passion. He described to her how he saw her now, in the yearning of his loneliness, as a heavenly nymph, the first pleasant, alluring vision on this sullen, miserable day. And as he read out the words to himself again, savouring their delicate flavour, he was astonished that she was so beautiful, and that he liked her as she was; it was only now that he realised it.
But at the end of the month, when he had seen her every Sunday and then, during the last week, accompanied her home from work every evening, when that week was over, on the last day, something happened. He waited for her in vain, at the corner, beneath the crooked lamp, in the wind. She did not come, nor the next day, nor on the third day.
From the unutterable fear that struck him - was she ill? was she unfaithful? - and from the way the volcanic letter erupted from his lacerated soul, he realised it was not the problem that concerned him, it was love. But no answer came to his letter. In the store where she worked they knew nothing. 'She no longer works here.'
On the fourth day, at the tenth hour of the morning, as he was wrestling with his wild dreams, there was a gentle knock at the door, like an embarrassed beggar, or a model looking for work, then another, and after he had repeated his surly grunt and was already preparing a crude rebuff, then, after a while, she came in, tiptoed up to his bed, her bemused gaze stumbling inquisitively over the jumble of dingy bibelots, and, after she had given him a hearty kiss, sat down on the edge and said, a little timidly and despondently, 'You see, I've left my cousin's, because I can't live without you ,... it was the most sensible thing to do ... last Saturday.
Then he let out a howl, like a hungry beast that has finally caught its prey, and tore her to him and threw himself onto her and ran his trembling fingers over every inch of her and rolled back and forth with her, giving short, shrill, hoarse whistles of ecstasy and covering her whole body with biting kisses, as if he wanted to tear her to pieces.
But she twisted out of his arms. for she was wearing her new hat, the one made of black lace with a spray of roses and anemones hanging down at the back, very crushable, very fragile. And sitting in front of the mirror, smoothing herself out and putting up her hair, she said, 'You always wanted to go out into the country ... just look outside, today, the sun.
His first impulse was not to let her go before he had tasted of her flesh, that glowing, quivering, rosy flesh, the overpowering, sultry scent of which he was greedily sucking in with wide-stretched nostrils like some exquisite oriental spice; not before his thirsty embrace had sipped of her blood from the lips, breasts and loins he had already gnawed; not before this unutterable craving to devour her, to drink her dry, to enjoy her with each separate sense, was finally, finally satisfied. But he pulled himself together and let her be. He realised he did not want to spoil the bliss that had finally arrived. No, now was the time to prove that he knew how to enjoy happiness by not hastily swallowing it in large gulps, but by savouring its sweet berries on his palate, slowly, deliberately, letting them seep into his every pore, jealous of every drop, so as not to lose the least atom of its full flavour. He wanted to tend his bliss, methodically, systematically, so as to gather in a lush harvest.
He would spend the whole day imagining it, the whole, long, summer's day, filling his mind with detailed images. The whole day he would sleep with her in his mind, constantly assuring himself, through kisses and embraces, that that night he would sleep with her body. The whole day he would luxuriate in the rapturous certainty that in the evening he would finally luxuriate in the rapture which had for so long been uncertain. He kept fondling her in his mind with such tireless antitheses, just as he kept fondling her with tender, lustful, fumbling fingers. And he would have wished the day everlasting and eternal, spread out over aeons, without end, because already he was filled with fearful doubts, which, however, did not dare moan out loud; already he was afraid of the fulfillment: could it, could it ever match up to his expectation?
As protection against the cool evening air, he threw his coat round them and they each enveloped themselves in the other, their two bodies growing into one. He had his arm round her neck and could feel the warm buds of her breasts. And everything she said, every word, was like the heavenly music of happy angels, and he was most astonished, for the first time he realised what spring was. He would have liked to have stayed sitting on the rock and died.
Slowly, very slowly, after their meal in the little garden by the river - surrounded by buds; a nightingale sang -they returned home up the Seine, through the brightly coloured flames of the Exhibition. It was even more beautiful than he had expected. Slowly they walked along the boulevard to his apartment.
He lit the light, she tied the flowers into a large bouquet and put them in water. As she undressed, he smoked one more cigar and drank in the odour of the flowers and of her flesh. Neither spoke a word, she just softly hummed an old air from the Auvergne as she sat at the mirror releasing her tresses. Then, as if they had long been accustomed to it, they went to bed. And it was with a sudden shock, almost horror, that he realised he had made love to a virgin.
Stuttering and stammering, overcome with confusion, he raised himself to his knees, 'Oh, you ... how then ... You didn't mention that... is it... can it really...?
She sat up, buttoning up her bodice again, her gaze fixed on the far distance, as if seeking help against some inconceivable danger, and with quivering lips, 'You thought I was one of those?!' And she turned to the wall and cried, cried bitterly. But soon sleep took pity on her.
But he, in a feverish turmoil, could not find peace. He tossed and turned, looking for coolness in the sultry pillows. His throat was burning.
He jumped out of bed, craving water, took a deep draught, wet his eyes and plunged his face into the bowl; he wanted to swim out into the wide ocean until this parching, choking thirst was cooled. And then, closing the curtain round the bed so as not to wake her, he lit the light and walked and walked, breathless, if only he could have climbed the mountains, straight up into the ice, if only he could escape somewhere. And he wondered what all this could be.
Yes, it was bliss, his reason could prove it. It was bliss, ultimate bliss. It was just that he was not yet used to it.
* * * *
Outside, dawn was breaking and the trees were shaking themselves. Gently he pulled back the curtain of the bed. She was breathing softly. He knelt down and placed an ardent kiss on the rosy-pink sole of her foot, which was peeping out of the bedclothes. And thus, in the attitude of prayer, he fell asleep.
Blessing or Curse?
Often when, the morning rays saluting her, covering her hyacinth flesh with golden scales, she sat upright in front of the mirror braiding her hair, his desire flickering round her, and slowly, with plucking fingers that gleamed like swift snakes, gently and insistently pulled at her tangled lashes, her recalcitrant brows, damped and shaped them, her lips pursed in a silent whistle whilst her restless tongue flickered out quickly and darted back in with a soft smacking, and then, lids closed, bending forward as if in prayerful humility, softly, carefully, tenderly she wiped the powder puff - her little nose, fearful of the dust, twisting to the side - over her lowered cheeks, assiduously, many times and with a very serious, solemn, sacred expression, as if performing an act of worship; or at other times when, going out on an errand, she left him alone in bed, among the traces of her smell in the sultry hollows from which clouds of delightful images rose up, intoxicating, ecstatic shapes; or in the peace of the evening, as they were waiting for night, as, slowly, the soft memory of light faded, and conversation was already asleep and only a song from some childish game flitted shyly across her lips - then, sometimes, he could have soared up to the stars in exultation, with boundless joy, because he felt so unutterably happy.
But at other times, immediately after, abruptly, he felt the urge to throttle her, to whip her, to tear her apart, his fingers ripping into her hated flesh, until she was gone, eradicated, in his anger, fury and disgust; and he could not have said what the reason was, there was no reason, the urge just came to him, no idea where from, it was a turmoil which overcame him, alarming, irresistible, at the mere sight of her, catching him unawares, sometimes at moments when his happiness seemed complete.
So he never knew where he was with himself, because it was like a sickness which kept reappearing with different horrors, and he did not know what to do, he could not settle to a constant, reliable feeling towards her and was ever anxious and apprehensive as to what might happen next, the next moment, and never, through all his eager curiosity, was it settled whether it was a blessing or a curse.
The Sign of the whip
No, it meant nothing, there was no need to get worked up. It was just one of Fifi's dreadful habits - he knew them well enough by now - that she could not sit still for a moment, but took every opportunity to be jumping up and down, now looking in the mirror if a bow were coming undone, or going to fetch water, salt, vinegar, or the newspaper to read the theatre reviews - and her ringlets bobbed up and down, and her hips swayed, and her fingers clicked. And out in the street she could never quietly walk straight along the pavement, but had to look in every shop window; she always walked down both sides of the street at the same time, as Marius put it; across, back, an incessant zigzag.
And then, she just wanted to tease him a little.
Because of the lecture he had given her about table manners, about the way she used to eat things with her knife.
That was it.
She wouldn’t forgive him for that. Very prickly.
She couldn’t stand it when he reminded her of her lowly origins, that she hadn't been brought up properly.
Took her revenge.
She was doing it deliberately.
But he wouldn't fall for that. It showed just how little she knew him!
On the contrary. She amused him, with all her vain stratagems, which he could see through straight away.
Barking up the wrong tree!
Just grin and bear it. Don’t react. The two men were already at coffee. That would make her the one to look silly.
He'd have a good laugh at her.
No he wouldn't, he still felt sorry for her, after all that fuss about the knife, which was really all nonsense. And how charming she was, the way she was pulling the leaves off the artichoke, dipping them, tasting the sauce, with those roguishly innocent eyes.
Why torment her? Have patience, educate her - and love, lots of love.
You have to treat women like children.
More sweets than the whip.
And it was better for him, too, better for his digestion.
The two swells had finally left and gone into the smoking room.
Make it up. Take her to a grand theatre to see the latest play. And buy roses. She couldn't resist flowers. Everything would be back to normal.
And then, just as he was making these noble resolutions, she was away, jumped up, knocked her chair over, dress streaming out behind her, and took the three steps down into the salon in one leap.
Like a bird taking off.
Like a shooting star.
And she was gone. All that was left was the echo of her giggle.
Music, of course. She got carried away, her legs simply took over.
It was a little inconsiderate towards him, though. After all, he was her lover!
Then why didn't he dance, ever? His own fault. Him and his idees fixes.
She was not the kind of girl who would be silly enough to let that ruin her life. There was nothing like a lively waltz.
So there she was, jigging about the floor with 'Twisted Nose' while 'Iodoform' played the piano.
He fell into such a rage that he smashed the bottle of cognac.
Rushed out and tore her from 'Twisted Nose's' arms, so violently that he went tottering across the floor.
If he had said one word, one single word of protest!
Nothing but cowards, the whole lot of them. Just stared in amazement. And women fall for such pathetic specimens!
She just turned very pale, and bit her lips to stop herself crying out as he dragged her with him, and held back the tears that came to her eyes because he was hurting her so much.
He did not let go, the whole way home, but hauled her along like an obstinate calf. She did not dare say a word, nor cry out loud. She was filled with great fear, and with great love, because he was strong.
When they arrived home he was exhausted and trembling, and all he could say was, 'You whore!'
Then her defiance returned, and she tried to humiliate him, scoffing, 'Well go and find another one, then, if you can find one who'll take you!'
Then he hit her in the face with his clenched fist. As she had no other way of defending herself, she spat at him.
He ripped off her clothes, tearing them to rags, bent her over and set about her with his dog-whip. He wanted to scourge her till the flesh fell from her bones, till there was no trace left of her and he was free. His mind was empty apart from this one irresistible desire, and he could not stop until it was assuaged.
Just blood, blood. He only came to himself again when it was dripping down from the weals.
Then he forced her to make love and chastised her with kisses, while she pushed at him, spat and bared her teeth.
Until they fell into an insensible, death-like stupor. Outside, their cat, which had fled, glided softly over the brightly lit roof, beneath the silent, shimmering sky.
From that day on their relationship was transformed, under the sign of the whip. Their caresses turned into blows, and every kiss, like a lash with thorns, tore open stinging cuts, from which their flesh began to fester, as if from the contagion of their shame. It was a cruel and depraved torture, insatiable lust, the waves of which pounded more and more furiously with each renewal, inventive in cruelty, sensuality that had lost its way and was heading towards madness. They could no longer find satisfaction unless they were glued together with blood; they had to dig into each others vitals with clenched fingernails and tear at their innards just to elicit a response from their deadened, debilitated nerves, pounded, ridden to exhaustion by so much passion. And again and again, restless and unyielding, their panting, never-satisfied senses howled 'More, more!'
He worked out a new theory about it, that they were on the trail of a new kind of love: through torment.
As if they first had to destroy their bodies so that their souls could come together, freed from base flesh and happy.
Yes, strangle each other so their souls might be resurrected. That was it - more or less, he had not yet worked it out in detail, only that first of all they had to kill the flesh which held them imprisoned.
* * *
Yes, he was on the right track: through torment.
First of all he had to destroy his old consciousness, so that the new love could awaken.
To sink - first of all everything had to sink, to flicker out, to be extinguished.
First they had to strangle each other, so they could rise again.
It gave him a mystical, religious lust - he could not express it in words because it was confused, beyond language.
They just had to hold out, they were so near.
They had to blast each other to pieces. Then they would be able to grasp it, grasp it and hold it.
And hourly he fell upon her in his butchering rage with some new humiliation and devastated her with some new atrocity and crucified her on some new perversion.
And when once more he had crushed her and drained himself dry, so that their pale corpses merely twitched with dull spasms, then suddenly, at the back of his brain, a bright light appeared, very bright, with a comforting, faery brightness.
Then again they would brood for silent hours that limped by, and neither would dare look the other in the eye, because they were so deep in filth.
Once she said, with horror, 'You will finish by completely depraving me', and shuddered with shame and disgust.
But he could not give in because it was his last hope. There was no vice, no murder he shrank from because it was for art, for its awakening.
Until his body rebelled.
His body drove him away from her with disgust and horror. His body ejected love like a poisonous infection which the healthy fluids would not stand.
It was a fever to save his life.
Ill, for weeks on end, with sudden, obstinate visions. He felt he was seeping out and draining away, he could not hold himself together. He was very frightened that his head might split in two, right down the middle; then he would be two persons and none at all. He was driven around restlessly by a shrill roaring that grew and grew. All his thoughts tripped and staggered and rolled into a tangle; they stumbled along lopsidedly, feeling their way, as if in an obstinate, drunken stupor. He supported his forehead, which seemed to have been transformed into lead, on his hands. Dank clouds of dreams hung on his lids, pulling them down; but when he lay in bed, sleep withdrew and only came in fits and starts, with icy shivers that ate into the marrow, a ghastly tossing and turning under a cruel glare, as if there were some inexorable vice pushing the walls of his brain together, closer and closer, narrower and narrower, tighter and tighter, until any moment they would meet and crush his mind to a pulp.
* * * *
And he bathed his fevered brain in absinthe and drugged himself with sultry, stupefying odours, so that he lost all consciousness of himself. He neglected himself, like a hated and useless burden, and was alienated from himself and took no care for himself, because he could no longer understand nor control himself. And he kept on thinking that he would divide into two. It was certain it would happen, quite certain, and one day he would wake up split into two halves. And from then on he would only be the other one, the new one that came out of the left side of the brain, and the old one he would throw out, together with her.
Together with her. She was only a delusion of his damaged mind.
And he felt much better when he imagined all this, how he would be a new, free man. The man he would be would know nothing of the past, nothing of her. He would free himself from her.
To free himself from her. That was the object of his avid longing.
To live in hope, to wait for the miracle to happen. He could not do it on his own because his strength was exhausted. It had to come as a blessing from outside.
To free himself from her, to free himself from all women, and then he would never again have anything to do with love, for nothing came of it.
To use her to purify himself, but only as one takes a bitter, nasty medicine, getting rid of it as soon as the infection is over. The last thing he wanted was love. He had been cured, thoroughly cured, of the superstition that love might exist.
No, for this generation there was no such thing as love. Of the old kind they only knew from books and could not feel it, whatever efforts their minds might make. And the new kind of love - yes, perhaps later, but it had not appeared yet; they were only deceiving themselves.
* * * *
Women made one unclean. Being with them made the soul dirty. His throat filled with phlegm at the mere thought.
Often he had a terrible, tormenting fantasy. In a spacious hall, that was decorated with bile and spittle, all the women with whom he had ever slept were gathered together. He could not count them: there were beautiful ones, with eglantine in their hair and pearly smiles, cajoling like the starry nights of an Andalusian summer; and there were aloof ones, who appeared chaste on the outside, with hidden allurements; and misshapen, hunchback ones whose features revealed the smirk of rare and poisonous vices; there were curious children and nymphomaniac old women; some who did it for lust and some to quell their hunger. And all of them, naked, crumpled from lascivious exercises, thronged round him with practised gestures and shouted propositions, vying with each other, arousing him to a turmoil of lust, until, in great fear, he swooned. Then an abrupt fall woke him, trembling, as if at the roaring of a hot, dry wind, soaked through from all the turmoil and horror.
If only he could free himself of her!
* * * *
And so they lived alongside each other, brooding, turned in upon themselves, preoccupied with their soul's misery, through leaden, stranded days; rigidly avoiding words and glances, they gnawed at their hatred. And each was furtively waiting to see if the other would start, fearing it and craving it. And then, because their life was unbearable, suddenly, just so that something would happen in the dreadful desert of their emotions, uttering shrill curses, they would assault each other with love, with a hurried, wild, grimacing love that made them disgusted with themselves, and they buried themselves in each other until they were conscious of nothing, nothing.
At last he was rid of her, and for good. He was free again. The feeling of oppression left him, the yoke split, he could breathe a sigh of relief. He was his own man again. He could devote himself to art once more.
And it had come about through her, through no fault of his, without his help, without his complicity, the break had come through her alone; not a whiff of reproach touched him. No one could accuse him of having rejected her; he had no responsibility, nothing to repent. It was she who had left him, deliberately and of her own free will.
All that was very nice.
Just as he had hoped in his wildest imaginings. He could enjoy the gift of freedom with an easy conscience. It was impossible to regret it, because it was impossible to avoid it.
And that was something else one should bear in mind, that she had not left him for a more handsome1 younger or more amusing lover, but for a vulgar monster, a blackamoor, because he was rich, very rich. It would have wounded his pride if she had transferred her affections; something like that is humiliating. But she had left him for money, purely for money; no need to feel hurt about that.
* * * *
So he clung to his work and began again his wild, breathless wrestling with the brush.
He hammered himself with ambition and greed and all the stimulants he could find. He boiled his nerves in poems, in music. He goaded himself with the phantoms of his dead hopes.
Then he slumped again and despaired even of art.
That, too, was nothing but a sham. He would never be able to achieve Beauty and Truth. And even if he could, then it was certain that no one would understand him.
What was the point, then?
If he was just common and low like the rest, then he could not produce art. But if he was not common and low, then for the rest the art he produced would be incomprehensible and contrary to all reason. What was the point, then?
* * * *
Be common like the rest, have money and play baccarat for his digestion - that was it!
And get drunk, thoroughly drunk, soak his brain until it left him in peace, strangle his nerves until they were silent.
And after a week the whole quartier knew of his tempestuous nights in all the dives where there was nothing but wild carousing with brazen whores. And they just called him 4the crazy painter' because he 'was such a lot of fun', tireless in his inexhaustible repertoire of practical jokes They all envied him his crackling, fizzling, sparkling humour and his happy-g~lucky temperament; especially when he talked about his 'little tart' who had run off with a 'blackamour', how very fin de siecle. He always told that story because it cheered him up.
* * * *
When he felt in the crack under the door that morning, he found two letters there. The first was large, soft, grey; he recognised those curt insults just from the handwriting:
from his tailor, the fellow had become insolent lately; and anyway, it was just the same old story about money. Quickly he tore open the other letter.
'My darling pet rabbit.
Just time for a few hurried lines, I have still to get dressed, and the chimpanzee is going to buy me some pictures now, since they made all that fuss about Monet's daub of the Soledad Fougere, but of course, I wouldn't stand for that, and then I remembered, it makes no difference to me but it might be your big chance, he's already promised and will pay anything you ask so don't be shy, make him pay through the nose, send three or four, whatever you happen to have, but send them straight away and with as much bare flesh as possible.
Hearty kisses all over - must dash now - from your ever-loving Fifi.'
* * * *
He was pleased that the decision had been made for him. He preferred to think of all the money, all the money in shimmering piles, how it would glitter and chink, bright, cheery ... money, money ... he sucked at the slippery, slimy words that brought the water to his mouth and licked at them with all his thoughts.
He set off home to deal with it straight away, so that it would be done, unalterable, packed up the four paintings and sent them off that very day. The next day, in the morning, punctually with the first post, came his price, in clean notes which felt good to the touch and crackled with soft suggestions as he stroked them tenderly. He found their delicate blue positively relaxing; now at least he could afford to give his tailor a piece of his mind.
The first thing, though, was to turn himself into a respectable human being. He was tired of this gypsy life: debts and ideals. He suddenly felt - God knows where they came from - powerful urges drawing him away from all this nonconformity and pushing him towards conventionality, and they felt good because they were something new; he had really rather overindulged in the other kinds of feelings on the menu, He suddenly found himself so reasonable, so mature, so adult, having put away all his silly pranks, far, far away, and so composed; from now on he was going to concentrate on reality, on tangible enjoyment, which could enrich both nerves and senses, on being positive like other people; all that head-in-the-clouds striving led nowhere.
His new clothes had their effect. He spent his days rehearsing the new homme de chic. It was only now that he realised that you really do think differently in patent leather shoes and kid gloves, the brain is shunted onto another track; it was obviously the homespun that had caused his former confused idealism, now his feelings came from finest English worsted, lined with satin.
* * * *
Yes, the school of love taught true wisdom. You got quite badly mauled, but in the end it did mean you had all the nonsense knocked out of you. What you learnt there, you learnt for the rest of your life.
Taking it all in all, there was no need for him to regret his affair with Fifi. The six months had not been wasted; they had brought him to his senses. They had cleared away all his romantic nonsense and turned him into the natural representative of the age.
And now he could live his own life. He concentrated on his baccarat and, after he had bought himself a pair of yellow trousers, learnt to ride. So as not to neglect the artist within him completely, he sometimes composed outfits to wear.
He was firmly resolved never again to take anything seriously apart from himself
* * * *
Often, as he gazed out on the declining days of autumn, he thought how agreeable, how relaxing the coming winter would be, full of well-earned pleasure.
Extracts from Hermann Bahr: Die gute Schule, S. Fischer, Berlin, 1890.