“One principle of dazzling clarity dominates the psychology of oppression: the oppresor tends to characterize his victim by those very traits which he is most ashamed of in himself: hysteria, dependence, feebleness, irrationality. Growing up in the fifties is already made dreary by men other than L. who exemplify this deceitful tactic of control, who pester me the way women are accused of pestering men, pleading for permanence, respectable households, constancy. Paul, for instance, a lover from my college days at Radcliffe, travels from Boston to my Paris apartment. every three months as punctually as some migratory bird. He leans agamst the door, or a wall of the airport, a tree in the park, wherever we meet, and says, “Someday you re gomg to marry me, Steph …. I’m going to faint now.” And in a slow rolling motion he slumps onto the floor, all six feet of him. He comes to within ten minutes or so, looking refreshed a little surprised. I spend twenty-four hours playing’ the rules of his game, admitting some admiration for his candor-how many men accede to their surely frequent desire to faint before women, without suppressing it with outdated myths of virility?”
from Francine du Plessix Gray-
Lovers and Tyrants pp 104-118 1972
“Well, now, Melanie,” L. says, “what a surprise to see you! How do you like this beautiful day! Why aren’t you riding your horsie this afternoon? Is he happy in his stable?”
We have been walking in the Park Monceau. Suddenly a child some twelve years of age has come along the bend of an alley, twirling her shiny new hoop. Her long black hair, held back by a little circlet of gold, falls in gleaming torrents of curls about her shoulders. Her placid eyes are of the deepest blue, like detached cornflowers. Her tiny snub nose, her ringlets. the dimples surrounding her prim, tight little mouth, lend her a certain cherubic glory. She wears a starched pink dress with a waist ribbon of a deeper crimson hue. Under the starched ruffles of her bodice, her tiny breasts are like lilac buds swelling under the ice of a March day. Just behind her stands a very formal governess dressed in heavy British tweeds. The child looks at us with surprise and pleasure, a little curiosity. As she stands there holding her hoop under the flowering chestnut tree, I know, I do not need to be told, that this is the unsullied, wealthy being for whom L. is reserving his boredom and the continuation of his name.
“Yes, how is your horsie?” he says. “Why aren’t you out riding him on this beautiful day?” He stares at her dreamily, and beyond her, as if into the park.
“Charles is very well, thank you, my dear Uncle,” she says in her crisp, barely accented Britannic English, “but Papa says that I must rest him for a week, for last Sunday when we were riding at Saint-Cloud we missed our mark at the last fence, and I went tumbling over his head, and he gave himself a slightly sprained ankle.”
L.’s face feigns great horror.
“Oh, my poor Melanie, my poor angel. Are you sure you did not hurt yourself?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Uncle, it was just a very little fall,” she· says with a crisp laugh. When she speaks French it’s with a faint British accent, like the Natasha of War and Peace who spoke her own language with a hard, rolled French r. She heaves a sigh, looking longingly at the riding alley, twiddling the ribbons of her hoop.
“And how is school? I hope you are doing well in your courses,” L. continues. “Naughty girl, your papa told me how badly you did in your Latin last term. I hope you are improving.”
“Oh, Uncle, you are always pushing me so hard to work,” she says with a pout and a toss of her curls, whose wealth heaves over the somnolent lake of her face. “Why is it you want me to work so hard?”
“Because I want you to be a very perfect young woman, as I’m sure your papa does.”
“And you and Papa are always conspiring against me,” she says, patting her hair into order. “Latin is so boring.” .
“But it is essential, my dear, if you wish to develop a clear and lucid style, an elegant way of expressing yourself in letters, for instance.”
“But that is all so boring compared to riding,” she exclaims. “Tell me, are you coming up for a weekend at the castle soon?” She twirls her hoop again. “Papa was just complaining that you had not been up to hunt for a whole month.”
“Oh, I shall come soon, very soon,” he says, his eyes still plunged into the beyond of the park. “Tell your papa I shall be there within the month.”
“When you come I’ll show you how well I jump a three-foot hurdle!” And she begins to skip down the alley, her little baton tapping faster and faster at the hoop. “Goodbye, goodbye,” she cries, her pink ribbons flying in the wind, “I’ll see you very soon!”
We continue gravely walking in the park. “We chose her, you know, when she was only seven or eight years old. An angel. And all the money in the world.”
I know. Woman as angel, woman as beast, the ancient divisions. Venerable and hallowed mothers, sisters, brides versus the harlot mistresses, who particularly trouble men when they are purer than they. Our enslavers segregate us into zoos, with our full consent. Never let the blame fallon the enslavers only. It is all becoming clearer, very slowly.
One principle of dazzling clarity dominates the psychology of oppression: the oppresor tends to characterize his victim by those very traits which he is most ashamed of in himself: hysteria, dependence, feebleness, irrationality. Growing up in the fifties is already made dreary by men other than L. who exemplify this deceitful tactic of control, who pester me the way women are accused of pestering men, pleading for permanence, respectable households, constancy. Paul, for instance, a lover from my college days at Radcliffe, travels from Boston to my Paris apartment. every three months as punctually as some migratory bird. He leans agamst the door, or a wall of the airport, a tree in the park, wherever we meet, and says, “Someday you re gomg to marry me, Steph …. I’m going to faint now.” And in a slow rolling motion he slumps onto the floor, all six feet of him. He comes to within ten minutes or so, looking refreshed a little surprised. I spend twenty-four hours playing’ the rules of his game, admitting some admiration for his candor-how many men accede to their surely frequent desire to faint before women, without suppressing it with outdated myths of virility? But soon afterward our ways part again. For however many books Paul has read, however many degrees he has accumulated at Harvard, he threatens me with that sheltering security which terrifies me more than being a whore, a cocaine peddler, a tramp. With him I can predict what Caribbean island we would frequent at the age of thirty, where we would send our children to school when we were thirty-seven, where we shall go for our divorces at the age of forty-two. I can hear his deep voice whining, “Can’t you make soup out of all those lovely zucchini wasting away in the garden?” and “God, darling, when shall we ever get a decent summer bed cover?” and “I’m going out to get organic molasses to make some lovely dark bread.” Dutifully homeloving, devoted to his parents, overly domesticated, Paul belongs to that race of house husbands, of Father Earths, who will be the loneliest victim’s of the magnificent sexual revolution which is beginning to sweep the Western world. He follows me about with the lowering manner of a mother cow, reminding me to eat on time, ordering me to put my hat and boots on, using those simple tactics of domination which go under the guise of shelter. Otherwise, his decision to respect my privacy is admirable. Once, after our beautiful affair during my last year at Radcliffe, we slept in the same bed for three months without ever touching each other. Finally he had bet again on the American myth of the supremacy of the shared orgasm, and he had lost again. I was infuriated each time by our virtuosity. The cerebrality of the flesh, its need for constant discovery! Perhaps, as L. says, that is the truest meaning of the Fall. What with PauI’s gigantic silences, his meticulous quest for the better restaurant, we started off at the wrong end of the telescope, as if with an aging marriage. For a year he walks beside me with his architectural degrees, his dogs, his Korean war medals, his tweeds, his loving parents, his quiet country house, tall, tanned, skilled at inducing shared orgasm-the American dream. But I already know that I do not like myself, that I need to be reborn, that in order to go on living I must break myself apart in order to put myself together again, and Paul will never let me break apart.
When we are together, his knotty, powerful hands are constantly clenched with that repressed rage which he never dares to put into words, whIch causes him to faint every few months. “Blackmail, emotional blackmail!” I mutter to myself after those bouts of candor. “All right, talk, talk,” he says after recovering. And I talk as into a tape recorder, seldom corrected, seldom interrupted – that’s why it’s so boring-saying that happiness is not my goal, should not be anybody’s goal, the goal . . . Jesus, didn’t he remember my college thesis on Kierkegaard?
It is the fourth and last time he has come to Pans. I smoke throughout the meal, barely eating. He flashes me that perfect-toothed smile which shelters him like a mask.
“. . . he said the goal is a much more tedious task of discovery, self-exploration, shedding. of parental values, bringing death to the old self, bemg reborn-oh, God, I forget what else.”
“Sure you forget, Steph. You’ve been through seven cycles of rebirth just in the few years I’ve known you.:
“Okay, explain this one to me, precIsely because It may have to do with forgetting: Everything has been written that needs to be written about physIcal frigidity, but what about the emotional kind? I’m a case of spiritual nymphomania and emotlonal fngidity.
“It’s because you’re so goddam literary.” The pegs they find for you, always their refuge.
“I can have perfect sex, but it means nothing unless it’s textured by a fascination for power, for adventure, for suffering, for the impossible … ”
They don’t understand a word. of it. Those. damn sex manuals have taught this generatIon of Amencans such reverence for women’s orgasms that they are emotional illiterates. Their next step is always a return to the sheltering tone.
“I can’t stand to see you living in that hovel.”
“I want to live in a hovel for a while. I want my filth, my solitude. I want my despair, my floundering.
“This city is killing you, Steph. You’ve lost ten pounds in the past four months.”
“Well, maybe I want to almost die. Maybe it’s my destiny to be almost killed by this godawful city.”
It is a cold or a hot night in Paris, I don’t remember, I remember little of these last months save the stupor in which I go out to dull the edge of my solitude, the increasing brutality of my barbiturate hangovers, the growing tightness in a stomach that can barely digest anything, my bouts of rage at my impasse with L. I only remember that in the middle of that last evening with Paul I turn away and stare at an American couple dining by candlelight whose beauty harasses me. The man looks disturbingly like Paul, with that buffed, burnished aura of Ivy League and good tobacco. The woman is about ten years older than I am, with ashen hair pulled back into a soft bun. She smiles, and rests her chin on her slim ringed hand. There is a serenity about them which I know I shall have to achieve someday to avoid my own destruction. Oh, save me, God, but not quite yet, as we used to say in the seminar on Saint Augustine. But not quite yet.
The next morning, to remain true to his image of me-what else can I leave him?-I compose a literary note for Paul.
“I have tried so long to love you! But in wanting to give me so much aren’t you cornering me, aren’t you protecting me from those encounters with fate
which women are so brutally deprived of?”
Colette. How well she understood our ambivalent need for solitude, the blackmail tactics of men who offer oppression in the guise of shelter.
As a vagabond, how many times will I turn toward that strength of yours which is both my repose and my deepest wound? Perhaps you had not counted on the pridefulness of poverty, and the banality of happiness”
He takes the plane back to New York that day after scribbling his own little note, in which he appreciates the “sensitivity” of mine. A few months later, just after I’ve fallen ill, he writes me .from his parents’ home in Massachusetts that he mIsses me, and that all may be over. between us. I alternately weep and rejoice at his letter, fearing and missing his shelter as the canary misses its cage.
When I was a child my father-in an attempt to part me from my governess–once sent me to a winter camp in the French Alps ironically named “The Sweet Nest.” Every afternoon scores of children were bedded in metal cribs upon an outdoor terrace for their nap, their hands tied behind their backs to deny them the comfort of sucking their thumbs. I used to lie there in the brilliant cold, staring at the detested snow, my ears, ringing with the shouts of children deprived of this great solace. My convalescence in Switzerland now reminds me of those afternoons. Terminal despair, the air about me like the bars of a crib. Some weeks before I came here a doctor stood at my bedside in a Paris hospital, saying, “You will be saved by altitudes.”
Five thousand feet up in the Alps, my windows overlook a Wagnerian landscape constantly washed by monumental sheets of rain. The furniture of my hotel room is finished with a uremio glaze particular to tubercular resorts: the chest of drawers, the chairs, the beds, glisten with a brash yellow veneer applied between occupancies as a disinfectant. Alone, alone, finally I am totally alone. In this dismal season sandwiched between the end of the skiing and the opening of the golf the hotel is almost devoid of guests, the ground lies like mangled flesh between thin bandages of filthy snow. I have been ordered to spend eighteen hours out of each twenty-four in a reclining position, to walk an hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon. After breakfast I walk as far as my strength allows me upon country roads dotted with sanatoriums. A few hundred yards above me men in striped pajamas stand on balconies, waving and shouting lewd appellations. My days are measured by medicines, my walks are attended by the hooting of owls and the yelling of these pale, striped men. Everything here is minutely portioned out, as in an infant’s diet, doled out in tiny dosages. The little walks, and every two hours the little white pills that will bring my crazy white corpuscle count back to normal, every three houts the pink-tonic that will help strengthen the red ones, every night the yellow barbiturates that I repeat three or four times in the dark to bring me another bout of sleep. Some mornings I reach for the wrong bottle, take a yellow barb instead of a pink tonic, force myself to vomit it out to deter the terror of another sleepless night. The lunchtime medication is the trickiest bit of the schedule: amber-brown, faintly anised drops-most effective when accompanied by a great deal of wine–which put me to sleep for two hours of the afternoon. All right, darling, I say at twelve noon sharp, drink yourself to sleep, afternoon is the most painful time of all, like the sound of those children screaming in their cribs. Finally, lunch is finally arriving. Le petit bifteck, encore du gros rouge, les pommes frites, Ie cantal du pays. The brown drops toward the end, with a bite of apple and the fifth large glass of red wine to wash them down. I rise from my chair and keep my spine very straight, trying not to stumble before the guests at the other tables,· trying to be dignified. There is always a handful of transients to watch me, a few tourists passing by on their way to Zurich to admire the rain pouring down on the Wagnerian landscape. Schön, schön. A pretty, neurotically thin young woman with long blond hair rises from the table and carries a cup of decaf to her room. One foot carefully ahead of the other, there, very slowly, so as not to stumble in public. They must think here to recuperate from some disease of the spine, the way I stare straight ahead of me so as not to miss the lowest step of the stairs. Or that I am catatonic, or hypnotized. Stairs after lunch, the most
difficult part of the day. The first week I was here I kept stumbling on the seventh step, spilling the brown medicine all over me, laughing my head off, reeking of anise, but it was all worth it, worth two and a half hours of this month’s most blissful deathlike sleep. Always the dilemma of the borderline alcoholic: to drink enough to feel good without letting the world know how good you feel, to keep that a secret, a deep inner secret. To be secret. To be alone. That is the alcoholic’s secret, the alcoholic’s loneliness. That’s the whole fun of it, to walk through a room keeping that secret secret. I fall often upon the shit-colored stairs, but what a deep sleep I have, passing out on the Lysol-scented ·sheets …
Upon my waking, the mountains loom about me like the bars of an enormous crib, I feel five, six months old, my mouth is sucking for comfort, I lie in my bed whimpering for my next fix, my next bottle, my next sleep. More dosage upon waking: a cup of strong tea with lemon to startle me into reality again, a slice of raisin cake for the sugar energy that will take me on my walk. Outside, a group of Swiss tourists ride brown mares into the rain-gorged golf course. Tea, cake, horsie, I am still waking up. As I start walking, the terror of insomnia looms again. Every hour I am awake I dread the next night’s solitude, every hour is obsessed by the desire to be returned, with minimum struggle, – into that dark maternal night. I pass the terraced sanatorium where men stand in striped pajamas, calling and waving. That’s what men are, cripples shouting obscenities, never able to give me what I want: both tenderness and ecstasy. Two English spinsters sit beside me in the tea shop where I take my four-thirty pill. God, we are all so pale. “It’s that foul English air of ours that did your lungs in, dear,” one says to the other. It’s those foul Paris drawing rooms did me in, sweetheart, that foul middle-class disease passed on by women, to rise, to rise. You bitch of a city, you finally did me in.
One afternoon before tea L. suddenly steps out of a taxicab, just like that. I have heard from him a few times since I was in the hospital, notes to the effect of “Why did you do this to me, you are torturing me again, etc. We go to the hotel bar. He sits with his back to the Alps, .his chair separated from the abyss by a slim mountain fence. He is drinking something red, a gin and Campari, I think. “Why did you come here?” he asks. “I detest mountain views.” “Why did you come here? That’s more interesting.” “I may never see you again! When will someone drum some sense mto you? … ” In a few hours the fever returns. I am weak, weakened by wine, weakened by sex. Our first and last illness. Our first and last mountain view. Our first and last: trip abroad. He stands by the window, declaiming, “I need a certain way of life . . . style . . . don’t you think there was a certain style about the way I just appeared here . . . you must admit that I am styIe incarnate . . .” Style incarnate style incarnate Ie mcarnate yes yes you are style incarnate. Suddenly I rise and run out of the room, I decide to run away, to run so fast and so far that I shall never be found.
. . . high up on the mountain a feminine figure
ran down the path in great haste, but the way was
steep, and It constantly seemed as if she hurtled
herself down the mountain. She came nearer. Her
face was pale, only her eyes blazed terribly, her
body was faint, her bosom rose and fell painfully,
and yet she ran faster and faster, her disheveled
locks streamed loose in the wind, but not even the
fresh morning breeze and her own rapid motion
was able to redden her pale cheeks. Her nun’s
veil was torn and floated behind her her thin
white gown would have betrayed much to a profaner
glance, had not the passion in her countenance
turned the attention of even the most depraved
of men upon itself. Where does this woman belong?
In the cloister? Have these passions theIr home there?-
in the world? This costume?-Why does she hurry?
Is it to conceal her shame and disgrace,
or is it to overtake Don Juan? She hastens on to the forest
and it closes about her and hides her, and I see her no more,
but hear only the sigh of the forest. Poor Elvira!
I run and run and fall under a pine tree, the stars throbbing at my skull like needles of light. I feel as if I have been devoured by maenads, as if my limbs are scattered all about the forest, hundreds of yards apart from each other, and all the flesh left to me is one enormous muscle of a heart that is about to explode. I grasp for breath, ten or twenty seconds elapse before each breath, my mind is as light and clear and giddy as if I were whiffing pure oxygen. Hooray, hip hip hooray! Baby has finally fallen apart. Dolly is broken. Stephie went boom boom. But all Stephie’s horses and all Stephiets men will help to put Dolly together again. One or two things are brilliantly clear: She wants desperately to live. She is not her mother, or her aunt, or any of the female tribe before her. She is herself. So that’s what we have to do, break out of everything we’ve been taughtt allow ourselves to scatter apart and try to pick ourselves up again. Like that quote from Kierkegaard which I kept repeating just last year in that world I’m about to return to for good:
“So then choose despair, for despair itself is a choice.
And when a man despairs he chooses himself . . . in his eternal
validity.” Oh God, there comes that Parisian creep,
his face screwed up like that of a big rubber doll.
“You’re putting me into terrible states … what if we
would have been happy together, it would have been
too ghastly … ” He wipes his eyes with a corner of
his table napkin. Suddenly he looks just like his sister,
a fat-faced, pathetic baby.
“I suppose you’ll soon be going back to New York and those ghastly leftist friends of yours.”
My first and last insult. I rise on my elbows, feeling stronger than I have for weeks, the new me starts talking, the one that may be here to stay for a good long while: “Listen, Bonbon, not only am I going back to West Fourth Street, I’m going back there on the first plane I can catch next week. You should look in on that scene sometime, you’d have the screaming heebie Jeebles in five minutes, you’d be scared so shitless of those friends of mine you’d be yelling for your little sister in five minutes flat. About a half dozen of us live in one room in which we all eat sleep piss and shit leftist lingo, people who all said beddy-bye to their mommies long ago. By the way, isn’t it time you straightened out? I’m so fucking tired of your crappy Pans life, of your so-called Paris monde, a bunch of cock-sucking creeps and collaborationists. Listen, brother, I mean it, why don’t you straighten out and leave that tight-cunted family of yours before they devour you altogether? Families are the most intense cannibalistic machines in existence, aren’t you hip to that? They’ll pull you apart limb from limb if you don’t wean yourself away from the nipple before the next Pentecost comes around. . .. ”
By that time we are back in my hotel room, L. is brushing his teeth, gargling over the sink, his green eyes roll with amazement in his large face. Well, I must say he is doing relatively well, hiding some surprise that last aria of mine. Masks upon masks of style, masks of cynicism, God how they’re skilled at it.
“I adore you,” he gargles. “I adore potatoes with lard. Do you like potatoes with lard? I detest mountain views. I detest the middle classes. I need style, admiration, brutality, perpetual bliss.”
According to a mutal friend, L. proclaimed, years later, that he had found me insufferable because he could not communicate with me in words, but that I offered him the greatest “ecstasy” of his life, whatever that is. I, on the contrary, found the mechanics of our sex indifferent. I was in love with him because of the gods I later forswore, because I loved the sheer volume of his words, because he made me feel pure consciousness, because I was fascinated to discover the next turn in the convolutions of his mind. How little people understand of each other. Or of love, which after all is mostly a process of reconnoitering, of exploration, of communication, i.e., a system of information-gathering.
I did not see L. again until years later-a decade after I went home and married Paul-as he strutted on the boardwalk in the south of France in the company of his large family. The old princess, looking precisely as I had visualized her years ago, led the regal file like an aged chicken. Bloated, bejeweled, hobbling on a cane, her fat legs wrapped in sagging black stockings, her small greedy eyes swiftly roving left and right to see what suspicious new faces were about. Then followed L.’s sister Am6lie, her plump little face more chapped and chilblained than ever, her eyes screwed up into that wince of fear they assumed whenever she thought of her mother, as if she might even be scolded for the logistics of this particular promenade. Behind her, of course, came L., resplendent in a yellow turtleneck. He was vastly fattened, his cheeks had reddened and turned even coarser, displaying those capillary patches that give away the most indulgent life. His face was scrunched up into that feignedly stupid smile which sheltered him from the ridicule of emotion, his eyes lewdly scanned every woman who passed by, his head seemed larger than ever as it doddered on his overfed body like that of a monstrous Buddha doll. What a waste, what a waste. Finally, behind the three, walked the young Princess Melanie, her prim little mouth set into an expression of extreme displeasure, her former beauty almost destroyed by what one assumed were arduous years of childbearing, seeing that she had three young ones in tow that day and was barely twenty-three. Nothing much was left of her beauty, really, save the vacant cornflower-blue eyes that hung upon her drawn face like waning lamps on a dark, still night.
What a beautiful and moving greeting L. sent me for my birthday recently, as he does every November. Over the years I have found that his messages grow increasingly classical, sentimental, meditative, unhappy, and I am surer than ever that the words are someone else’s, not his own. Here is the latest:
On the ocean path, along which are seen no trees, no
villages, no steeples, no monuments: on this road devoid
of columns and military tombs, which has only
waves as boundaries, only winds for compasses, only
start for illumination, the most beautiful of adventures,
when one is not in quest of uncharted lands or seas,
is the encounter between two vessels. They discover
each other on the horizon through the looking glass.
The two structures approach, lower their flags to half
mast. When all is silent, the two captains, placed at
stern, hail each other on their bullhorns. “The name
of your boat? What port? The name of the captain?
Where is he from? How many days at sea? Latitude
and longitude? Goodbye, good luck!” The sailors and
the passengers of each boat stare at each other as
they retreat, without saying a word. Some are off to
search the suns of Asia, others the sun of Europe,
which will equally be witness to their death. The passengers
signal each other from far away. “Adieu! Good
luck!” The common port is eternity.
Long accustomed, as L. must be, to the bitter compromises of marriage and of what society calls “happiness,” and in memory of our blissfully lengthy conversations of a decade ago, I send him messages admittedly gleaned from literary classics which often refer to that city where I freely admitted to despair. Such as this one:
__ So there is an either/or. If you will continue to divert
yourself with the trumpery of wit and the vanity
esprit, then leave your home, go to Paris, devote
yourself to journalism, doze your life away in the
glittering inanities of the soirees, forget that there
is an immortal spirit within you; and when wit grows
mute there is water still in the Seine and gunpowder
in the store and traveling companionship at every hour
of the day. But if you cannot do this, then collect
yourself-respect every honest effort, every unassum- ,
ing endeavor, and above all have a little more
reverence for woman. Believe me, ‘out of a hundred
men who go astray in the world ninety and nine are
saved by women and only one by immediate divine
grace” –Sören Kierkegaard, 1842