Christopher Bernard’s novel Amor I Kaos: Installment 4
—But they are. Even beyond the last hope of imagining. For example: ecstatic redemption. Love given, love received, in mutual rhythms of thrill and calm. Freedom without despair. Youthfulness without stupidity or disintegration. A quiet doom. Those fledglings out of the pocket of whatever had been lost without any hope of being found. Though it seems to be too much to ask for. In its own demented and almost criminal heat. —Well. One always lives several lives in parallel, you slip between them, one to the other, fragments that never quite bind into a completely satisfying whole. So we lie to ourselves via the cerebral cortex, medulla, amygdala, brain stem, the requirements of grammar, and our various talents, such as they are, for story-telling, until the whole thing seems to hang together, More or less.
—Like Lincoln’s assassins.
—The truth (ignoring the cocky provocation) being too much of an appalling and humiliating mess to be borne, it’s quite beneath our dignity. Lincoln indeed.
—So I take what I can use and …?
—… and lock the rest in a back cupboard. Never throw any of it away, of course, you never know when it will become handy. But for heaven’s sake, don’t take it seriously, it will make you suicidally depressed, and what is depression but a pointless sorrow, one that does not even let you weep. And tears are sorrow’s gift, its peculiar pleasure. No. Keep truth under a strong hand and never let it forget who is the boss. You . . .
—No. Let me repeat. Keep truth, etc., never let it, etc., who is the boss. Full stop. This side transcendence.
—And what is that, Herr Professor, she asked innocently. Not truth?
He looked at her evasively.
—Again, no. An old and terrifying yet reassuring dream of what might be if only we could shape the world’s anarchy into something like the heart’s enchantment. Though that was not what you had said.
—Though even that might be too much to ask for. Such brazen hopes! Life only gives so much satisfaction, the rest has to be bargained for under one or two solstice moons. We wander lonely as a cloud but always end up in the same room. Have you ever noticed that? Under the brown lamp and the tussled remnants of an old dress of my aunt’s, left to Good Will when the fashions changed. And the woven spell of an itinerant couturier wasn’t to be matched by any critic.
—It was really wonderful to see.
—The sparkling waves kept the picture airy and bright as my uncle’s nose, don’t you know! His brash jokes brought out the best in the family. We fell to with a will at his yearly picnics in Buena Vista park those long afternoons, completely reconciled to the situation, it’s so much easier to forget an old wound than in many cases to cure it.
—And it’s a lot more fun to laugh!
—When Buddy forgot to snarl and Betty forgot to glare and Judy didn’t even bring up that old matter everyone had agreed to forget but no one ever did. Even Dad was mellow and refrained from sneering at his children. Yes, we were for two and three-quarters of an hour a happy family. Or we thought so, anyway, and isn’t that enough, really? As in the old days before the hurricane tore our seaside town to ruins.
—Yes, it was wonderful.
—If by wonderful you mean a total nightmare. Because that’s just what she was. The woman never communicated. Well, she “communicated,” but only on her own time, when convenient for her schedule. She had no respect for anyone, they could bleed to death if they interfered with one of her episodes or her off-hours between spasms of saintliness. For her a whim was an order from the gods. Sound familiar? Of the female class of the species, if you know what I mean.
—What do you mean?
—The male member hath no self-respect. We always spoil women. Anyway, the lookers. Now feminism has given you the added spice of an eternal grievance. Not only do you get to act badly, you get to feel sanctimonious about it. You get to say, out loud and nasty, you patriarchal male nazi fascist horse’s ass scumbag pig, you should be on your knees thanking me for not screwing you to the ground then skinning you alive for the last 10,000 years of masculinist oppression, which you are always six inches away from and would love to practice immediately and immoderately upon me right now! Wouldn’t you?
—Oh my boy (the other threw in from down the bar), we’re such wimps before the feminist, especially when she’s hot, we let them run all over us no matter how appallingly they behave. They deserve a hard, long spanking, if you ask me, and you haven’t. And not just a little soft S&M before bedtime, no, my darlings, a real beating, to let them know one will not be treated with disrespect at any time, for any reason. It’s like anything else, if you let people behave badly, they’ll just keep on keeping on. It’s true for kids, young men, old men, banks, gangs, corporations, nation states, and females. (“And males!” whispers Sasha, indignantly.) Until they reach the age of 40 and start to lose their looks, or fear they are, when men no longer stare at them whenever they walk into a room, and they start to panic inside, why aren’t they looking at me, don’t they want me anymore? And she feels for the first time the loss of power as the eyes of men, that bitterly impugned, compulsively desired “male gaze,” glide over her like water over a stone and fasten on the face and body of the younger, hotter woman coming up just behind her. At that moment she has a choice. Will she become a spazzy, raging, resentful hysteric or a simple, sweet humble old lady, grateful for the occasional polite smile of a bored but courteous male? Yes, be especially nice to the plain, the old, the ugly ones, they’ll be grateful to you, they’ll be kind, they will, above all, be loyal. Ignore the hotties if you can. And let them burn. Take the advice of an old male who has been through the wars, whose soul has more scars on it than a naked beekeeper’s butt. Of course, no one takes the advice of the old and wise. So you will have to learn the lesson on your own. They call them hot for a reason.
Yes, it sounds familiar. The petulant insecure male brutalizing his local female with reflexive unfairness. Because he had in fact been grossly unfair to her.
—The folly of love, though why one calls love what is a mixture of lust, emotional neediness, misunderstanding and obsession is beyond me.
—To lend it some dignity, I suppose. To hide the raving immodesty of passion. To look less ugly to ourselves in the mirror and the photographs.
—Though that might take more high coloring than a euphemism.
—That abrasion of the mind. That scratch of air and ink on the gray fat of the brain.
—Anything not to have to face it. One does feel foolish when one actually looks at oneself with the pitilessness one usually reserves for others. My God, what am I saying! —Too much as usual. You’d have been better off keeping your mouth shut. And your pen securely in your pocket.
She giggled haplessly at his ridiculous attempts to ride his cockhorse. He looked down dismayed at Johnson rising lazily to attention in his lap.
(—Down, boy, down!)
—But it’s so sweet! She almost collapsed in laughter. (”Never call it cute and never call it little!” she remembered her mother telling her. “Not if you want to keep him.” “You mean, I can’t always tell him the truth?” “Listen to your old mother. Love is based on truth and lies. The trick is getting the right mix. It’s like cooking. Salt is truth and lies is pepper. Too much truth you gag, too much lies you’ll choke. Honesty in all places at all times, which I know you young people like to go on and on about, is only for people who love themselves more than anybody else.” “Oh.”)
—That abrasion of the mind.
—“We’re stuck on neutral,” they had decided one day. “We can’t advance and we can’t retreat. We can’t attack and we can’t surrender. We can’t lose but we can’t win.” Though she objected to the military metaphors.
—Object away, be my guest, he’d said amiably. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.
—That’s what I mean.
—Yes, yes, I know, I know, but I could barely express myself without military metaphors. And why should annoyance trump pleasure, your mild irritation my expressive requirements? Why should I allow your suffering, indeed anyone’s suffering, to spoil my feelings of contentment, satisfaction, bliss? If I were sure of an afterlife and a heavenly reward for self-sacrifice and forbearance, I’d say sure, better a delayed gratification than no gratification at all, I would consider denying myself a pleasure to be an investment in the future, a permanent state of bliss to come, from simple cost-benefit analysis, but barring that, and I am only certain of how I feel right now and make calculations about my contentment while I am physically alive, and am uncertain, in fact deeply doubtful whether or not, after I am physically excised from planet Earth, I will be “alive” in any meaningful sense (the maggots at the all-you-can eat buffet of my tissues will not count), and feel anything at all between bliss, grief, fury and boredom, I see no reason to forego any happiness, any pleasure, any satisfaction. Here. Now. Any. Whatsoever.
—Unless I threaten to leave you, she said coolly.
—Yes, that would be another matter.
—So, your joy is your right, and my joy is my right, she said in calm and measured tones.
—And what happens when they conflict?
—Then, he said complacently, we go to war.
—Exactly. And if you lose?
The long journey across the widening gulf led in the end to a great vaulted chamber of granite tiling and marble volutes with a crazy blue oeillade that let in gusts of mild summer rain, and they could hear drums and hornpipes and the singing of wedding guests in the narthex and pigeons trapped and muttering in the choir.
—At least once in her life . . . —Oh yes, it seemed so romantic. And how harsh could it be? Unbearable, apparently . . ..
—Love, I insist, had nothing to do with it. Love was tired; a nice hope, an enchanting illusion, but it ended where it began, in the great circle of the bed: fling, birth, fling, death, birth, fling, death, birth, fling. Etc. See? “I love you, I don’t love you.” They mean practically the same thing . . . —There wasn’t even enough lust to keep the home fires burning. A wave swelled and wiped out half the beach. Just one. It glistened, majestic, the foam along the crown crinkled and sparkled in the sun. A flash and it was over. That was love. A brazen lie, it’s quite breathtaking. . . . —I wish it wasn’t so, but there you have it. Like the bird in the bush. The thorn bush. Or was that two birds? The one I had in my hand flew away. After leaving his calling card. That’s life. Brazen bird!
—What did you just say?
—I said love had nothing to do with it, as the song put it. Neither then nor now. You had to learn to shake off the weak ruthlessly, they clung to the strong like limpets (one of her favorite similes) or bats, sucking their strength as though it were blood, no one was more pitiless than the weak. Shaking them off was the only certain way to make them strong, make them lurch to their feet and bear their burden, and know something like, even if it can never be, deep and abiding contentment. And do it without poisoning the lives of the rest of us. Because this life is the only chance for it I have. Prospects for an afterlife are dim at best, I know I am alive now, and the pleasure or pain of this moment is my only certain knowledge.
—But you just said the heart of happiness is love. So, what of that? she asked, after listening patiently. What if the joy of loving is so deeply gratifying that any pain you feel is infinitely repaid with an ever-deepening satisfaction, a profound and never-ending hope?
He looked into her eyes with an almost frightening sorrow.
You see through me. You’re blessed if that is true. And I’m—well, not. I feel like a butterfly with charred wings. I sit on the ground watching the other butterflies fluttering, flower to flower, above my head, and I build my cold philosophy to shield myself from resentment and hatred and bitterness. Love if you are able to, and know the deepest joys life can offer, even in the teeth of its pain. If, like me, you can’t love, clutch your little pleasures, satisfactions of the moment, hours of serenity, days of tranquility, and let everyone else go hang. Your pleasures will be weak, your happiness thin, but your suffering will be thin too, your pain weak, your strongest feelings numb. Let everyone seek the joys he can bear and hold onto them with all his might.
—Or “her,” she reminded him sharply.
—You can’t get off your high horse for a second, he said, with a wry look, can you, my darling?
Her eyes held him for a moment like the shackles of his own explanation.
—Make them lurch to their feet, indeed!
A curtal sonnet. A linnet’s wing. A singing au pair. A surge into the abyss.
The scop struck his thigh, and the siege towers rolled toward the closed gates. His peers stood in long rows along the wall tops, their bows arched toward heaven. The morning was bright, there was a light wind from the forest, the clatter of carts could be heard in the distance. A falcon hovered above the tower. Streaks of cloud faded like smoke between the hills. Time froze, as time will. The messenger had already departed. He had pressed his seal on the wax. The sea itself bore the mark of its own passing, it rode the foam like a conqueror. It was the present that had always been an illusion. The future was a dark eye staring without seeing you as it advanced backward into the darkness ahead. Only memory was real, it caught the moment in its web like a spider. History was the empire where man was a king, every woman a goddess full of a sweet, sly joy. If only it could have been kept up for more than a season of childhoods. The maw of time ate at its own tail. The reptiles froze too in the winter slime, their eyes shocked with melting fire. The arrows shot in a black, arching rain, and a crowd of howls rose from the land as they fell.
The falcon remained still above the tower. At the bottom of the gully lay a small dark form curled up like pity. Between the two was a wall of stale air. Clouds hung like torn sheets from the battlements. The sun gave it a sharp glance, then moved to other battlefields. It was appalling what fools our spies were. They took on trust the slightest appeals to their humiliated paranoia and harvested black flocks of the innocent. It was heresy to say so, of course, more in some cases than one’s life was worth. At the very least you might lose several years of seniority in the camera oscura of a rattling and deconstructed bureaucracy. Candor always being a blistering virtue.
—That heals in direct proportion to its sting.
The catamaran swelled over the bow a sail as white as her thighs, followed by a wing hard as a fuselage and noisy as an ungreased pulley hoisting an elephant. You anoint it the palace of our future, where the gold will penetrate the night like a monkey’s poisoned eye.
—I would seriously consider rephrasing that line. For the e-book version, at least.
—I love thee more than life itself, but, sweetheart, I do hate it when you piss on my verbiage. And there will be no e-book version. Or only over my dead body.
—Sorry, but somebody has to bring you back to earth.
—For God’s sake, why?
—But don’t you want to have any readers?
—I’m not sure I do. I have you, don’t I? And you are the most passionate reader I know. When you love it, you adore it , and when you hate it, you hate it to the point of shrieking lunacy. Only the NSA reads with your passion. You read it—you pay attention, which is more than anyone else has ever done—and that is all that counts. It’s as good as the old KGB, from what my Russian friends tell me! Their greatest despair about democracy is that now they can publish anything they want, and nobody gives a damn. A writer needs only one reader—the reader who reads him as a matter of life or death.
Burn this book after reading. It is the only way you will never forget it.
—Not that he didn’t enjoy it, he did, very much indeed, went on, after an interval, the portly man, it was that he couldn’t bear making it a part of his relationships. So his relationships were simple and direct. He was lucky in that, in his childhood, he’d never been made to feel that spanking the monkey was so terrible. A serious lapse on the side of his parents. Once his mother tried to convince him (by exceedingly oblique references) otherwise, but it was by then far too late; he’d had many years of practice to prove to his own satisfaction that there were no untoward consequences (stunted growth? madness? retardation? Then why am I tall for my age and near the top of my class?).
In later years, he occasionally missed the feeling of a woman’s body under his hands.
If I get desperate, I’ll hire a hooker, he thought.
The relationship between hooker and client is clear, clean, neat: money for sex for money. No commitment issues, manipulation, dishonesty. All sex should be so clear, easy, nice! Remove sex from relationships! Remove sex from marriage! Sex without relationship! A heaven-sent idea! From a God who really understands human beings!
He never grew desperate: the internet saved him from that. Going solo with a porn video was altogether more dependable than the “real thing”: cheaper and, with HD, quite as vivid. You could have as many women as you could manage, day in, day out. And the girls were far prettier than anyone he would have to pay for. When he told Sasha all of this, she was not even shocked. The pieces fell into place and displayed the profile of his life with an enigmatic clarity.
—I always wondered why you took so long to touch me, she said. At first I thought you were gay. But you didn’t seem interested in men. You didn’t seem interested in anyone. I thought it might be revenge. —Maybe it was, he said. Though I can’t remember the crime. By the way, it’s not true I wasn’t interested in anyone. I have always been profoundly interested in myself. That is supposed to be the height of immorality. But frankly I don’t see it. It’s like masturbating: by the time people were warning me against it, I had been practicing it for so long, I knew it had no bad consequences at all.
He had a point. The greatest evil comes from two sorts of people: those who require a partner in sex (and often, naturally, don’t have one, or when they have one, either lose it, or are in danger of losing it, and therefore have a constantly renewed grievance against life in general for placing them in this cruel position), and those who profess to be selfless (but of course that is precisely what a person cannot be, without a self they would be dead; their self-division makes them hypocrites and hate every human being who, with ingenuous frankness, adores himself).
—So, it was not self-centeredness but self-lessness, and it was not self-abuse but “love,” that created much of the evil human beings inflict on each other?
—It’s a toss-up who are the most evil people in the world: the humble, modest and meek, or the rich, the powerful, the arrogant.
—Perhaps they create each other.
No, he never grew desperate. At least not enough.
—I would still seriously consider rephrasing it. Such as: Caught there, down in the weeds. In the wet autumn weather. When the skies are gray and silent except for the sound of the rain. A smattering of birdcalls just before the birds leave for the south. The dull and sleepy fog in the little valley where the pines are still so fragrant.
You could almost smell the deep mud and grassy smell of time passing, or rather standing still, like a pool in the middle of the woods. With here and there a late flower, white or blue, in the damp shadows. And behind the tapping of the water against the leaves, silence. Such comfort even in the cold. As though you were sheltered. Safe. Loved. “Nature,” you would whisper. “This is nature.” You thought you had found your god, your religion was the perfectly obvious, it was simply worship of the real, the real was nature, it was humankind that created unreality. This was your temple. Your deepest secret. How old were you, nine, ten? Was this the revelation?
—Or the innocence?
—What is innocence? What is revelation? I’m not being rhetorical here. I have wrestled with these questions all my life. The adult, though better informed than the child, and sometimes even cleverer, forgot the little wisdom he once had: that he is a small, vulnerable, mortal piece of the cosmos, like a splinter of broken glass, though a piece gifted, or cursed, with awareness. In your slyness and cunning you forget the great, pale truths that were once clear to you. You exchange illusions, trade blindnesses, lose one stupidity while gaining another. Above all, you forget the wisdom of the weak in your intoxication with your little conquests of power. Don’t you think?
—Yes, said Sasha, for once I do, and smiled with only a touch of irony. Think, that is. Even agree.
Such comfort even in the cold. You remember how it was. The matches kept for the porch light, and the slightly oily residue in the ashtray. For the locks, without graphite, became stiff. A modicum of sanity was all that was needed. And they didn’t always it get even then. A toast to a tree and other augurs of happiness! The swallows canted over the roof with startling cartwheels. The blue jay nattered and flexed its wings like a pair of banners. The owl pooh-poohed the lateness of the hour. And the immense strongbox was clamped shut with a proper wheeze. So there! So what! So now!
—I repeat: a modicum of sanity was all that was needed. More than that and we’d’ve drowned in gravy. Too sane is too sane, you might as well be crazy. And too much intelligence just makes you cocky and depressed. Look at the world, now. Drop your silly book. Yes, yes, the one now in your hands. You can’t tell me it isn’t a wonder: the table under your hand, the quilt, the blanket, the lap of your trousers, your bathing suit, your skirt. There’s a window over there, stand up and walk over to it. Look. (I know: I’m a bully. Just do it, and we’ll be out of here all the sooner.) What do you see? (Yes, yes, write it down—I’m sorry, please write it down, in the small space below: a list of things you see (hear, smell, taste, touch) when you look out the window. Take your time. We are in no great hurry. The list can be as long or short as you like. After all, this is now your book. Or, if you’re feeling too lazy, just look around you. That’s right. There’s a world out there. Listen to the lazy Christmas blues coming through the café sound system: it’s Ella, I’m sure it is.)
(to be continued)