September 13, 2009

For You, Whoever You Are...



For want of something better to do, and because I am empty of anything to write, busied as I am by the exigencies of New York City life, I share the following excerpt from The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir, one of my favorite writers. If you’ve never read her, she’s worth the time. I selected this piece because I’m old now:

“Listening is my job,” I said.

“Yes, I know, but you have a certain way with you.” He nodded his head. “You must be an excellent psychiatrist. If I were ten years younger, I would put myself in your hands.”

“Are you tempted to have yourself analyzed?”

“It’s too late now. A fully developed man is a man who’s used his defects and blemishes to piece himself together. You can ruin him but you can’t cure him.”

“That depends on the sickness.”

“There’s only one sickness that really amounts to anything—being yourself, just you.” An almost unbearable sincerity suddenly softened his face, and I was deeply touched by the confiding sadness in his voice.

“There are people a lot sicker than you,” I said briskly.

“There are some people who make you wonder, when you look at them, how they can possibly live with themselves. Unless they’re complete idiots, they should horrify themselves. You don’t seem like that at all.”

Scriassine’s face remained grave. “Do you ever horrify yourself?”…

…As soon as his breathing grew heavy, I slipped out of bed. It was hard for me to tear myself from the night which clung so tenaciously to my skin. But I didn’t want to arouse Nadine’s suspicions. Each of us had her own way of duping the other: she told me everything; I told her nothing. As I stood before the mirror, transforming my face into a mask of decency, I realized Nadine had been one of the main reasons for my decision to say yes to Scriassine, and I couldn’t help myself from holding it against her. Yet I really hadn’t the least regret for what I had done. You learn so many things about a man when you’re in bed with him, much more than when you have him maunder for weeks on a couch. Only I was far too vulnerable for this sort of experiment.

I was kept very busy all morning. Sezenac didn’t come, but I had quite a few other patients. I had only a vague impression of Scriassine, and I needed to see him again. Our night together was resting heavily on my heart, incomplete, absurd. I hoped that in talking to him we would be able to bring it to a conclusion, to save it, perhaps . I was the first to arrive at the café, a small place, painted bright red, with highly polished tables. I had often bought cigarettes there, but I had never sat down. Couples were sitting in booths and talking quietly. A waiter appeared and I ordered a glass of ersatz port. I felt as if I were in a strange city; I no longer seemed to know what I was waiting for. Suddenly Scriassine burst into the café and walked hurriedly over to my table.

“Sorry I’m late. I had a dozen appointments this morning.”

“That makes it all the nicer that you’ve come.”

He smiled at me. “Sleep well?”

“Very well.”

He, too, ordered a glass of ersatz port and then leaned toward me. There was no longer any trace of hostility in his face. “I’d like to ask you a question.”

“Go right ahead.”

“Why did you agree so readily to go up to my room with me?”

I smiled. “I guess it’s because I like you a little.”

“You weren’t drunk?”

“Not at all.”

“And you weren’t sorry afterward?”

“No.”

He hesitated. I gathered he was anxious to obtain a detailed commentary for his most intimate catalogue. “There’s one thing I’d like to know. You said you’d never spent a night like that before. Is that true?”

“Yes and no,” I answered with a slightly embarrassed laugh.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, disappointed. “It’s never really true.”

“It’s true at the moment; less so the next day.”

He swallowed the sticky wine in a single gulp.

“You know what chilled me?” I said. “There were moments when you looked so terribly hostile. “

He shrugged his shoulders. “That couldn’t be helped.”

“Why? The struggle between the sexes?”

“We’re not on the same side. I mean, politically.”

For a moment I was stupefied. “But politics has so little place in my life!”

“Indifference is also a stand,” he said sharply. “You see, in politics if you’re not completely with me you’re very far from me.”

“Then you shouldn’t have asked me to go up to your room,” I said reproachfully.

A sly smile wrinkled from his eyes. “If I really wanted a woman, it’s all the same to me whether she agrees with my politics or not. I wouldn’t even have any qualms about sleeping with a fascist.”

“But apparently it isn’t the same to you, since you were hostile.”

He smiled again. “In bed, it’s not bad to hate each other a little.”

“That’s horrible,” I said, staring at him. “You’re quite an introvert, aren’t you? You can pity people and feel remorse for them, but I doubt if you could ever really like anyone.”

“Ah! So you’re the one who’s doing the analyzing today,” he said. “Go on, I love being analyzed.”

In his eyes I saw the same look of maniacal greed I had noticed the night before when he looked down at my naked body. I could not have tolerated it except in a child or a sick person.

“You believe loneliness can be cured by force; but in making love, there’s no greater blunder.”

He got the point. “What you are saying is that last night was a failure. Is that right?”

“More or less.”

“Would you be willing to begin all over again?”

I hesitated. “Yes. I don’t like to stop at a failure.”

His face hardened. “That’s a pretty poor reason,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “You don’t make love with your head.”

That was precisely my opinion. If his words and desires had wounded me, it was because they came from his head. “I guess both of us do things too much with our heads,” I said.

“In that case, I suppose it would be better if we didn’t try again,” he said.

“Yes, I suppose so.”

Yes, a second failure would have been even more disastrous than the first, and a happy outcome was inconceivable. We had absolutely no love at all for each other. Even talk was useless; there had been nothing worth saving and the whole affair, in any case, didn’t lend itself to a conclusion. We politely exchanged a few idle words and then I went home.

I hold nothing against him, and I hold hardly anything against myself. Besides, as Robert told me immediately, the whole thing was quite unimportant—nothing but a distasteful remembrance lingers in our minds and concerning no one but ourselves. But when I went up to my room I promised myself I would never again attempt to remove my kid gloves. “It’s too late,” I murmured, looking into the mirror. “My gloves are grafted to my flesh now; they’d have to skin me alive to get them off.” No, it wasn’t only Scriassine’s fault that turned out the way they did; it was my fault, too. I had slept with him out of curiosity, out of defiance, out of weariness, to prove to myself God knows what. Well, whatever it was, I certainly proved the contrary. I thought casually that my life might have been different. I might have dressed more elegantly, gone out more often, known the little pleasures of vanity or the burning fevers of the senses. But it was too late. And then all at once I understood why my past sometimes seemed to me to be someone else’s. Because now I am someone else, a woman of thirty-nine, a woman who’s aware of her age!

“Thirty-nine years!” I said aloud. Before the war I was too young for the years to have weighed on me. And then for five years, I forgot myself completely. And now I’ve found myself again, only to learn that I’m condemned. Old age is awaiting me; there is no escaping it. Even now I can see its beginnings in the depths of the mirror. Oh, I’m still a woman, I still bleed every month. Nothing’s really changed, except that now I know. I ran my fingers through my hair. Those white streaks are no longer a curiosity, a sign; they’re the beginning. In a few years, my head will be the color of my bones. My face still seems smooth and firm, but overnight the mask will melt, laying bare the rheumy eyes of an old woman. Each year the seasons repeat themselves; wounds are healed. But there is no way in the world to halt the infirmities of old age. “There isn’t even any time left to worry about it,” I thought, turning away from my reflection. “It’s too late even for regrets. There’s nothing left to do but keep going."

The Mandarins; The World Publishing Company, 1960; Previously published in Paris by Librairie Gallimard


Her most-successful book, but only one of her many works.


Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Che Gueverra in Cuba, 1960.



de Beauvoir photos from Wikipedia

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting read...thanks for sharing.
P.S. You are not old! Yes, you are older than you've ever been, but you are not old. Wait till you are in your 90's, than you can say you are old. Smile, LC

Mike Havenar said...

Thank you, anonymous...age is inside our ancient minds, and I'm increasingly seeing it as a blessing in a wound.

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