20 November 2016

To be modern: On Contempt (2)

Contempt by Alberto Moravia, tr. Angus Davidson (New York Review Books, 2004)

Riccardo Molteni decided to write down his memories of his wife and their doomed love affair in order that she would be exorcised of him. So he dwelt in his own melancholic recollections, seemingly sustained by a framework of pathological grief, romanticism, and naivete. He could even be considered heroic in his self-imposed funk, preferring to dream of a world in which he felt he was for ever barred, "a world in which people loved without misunderstandings and were loved in return and lived peaceful lives." All this inner emotional acrobatics of Riccardo only served to implicate him in the mess of a narrative bathed in pathos and dreams. The gaps in his memory he could only attribute to "a fainting fit, or ... some kind of collapse or unconsciousness very like a fainting fit."

Contempt represented a kind of trap for readers. The consistency of tone throughout the narrative reinforced an impermeable, blameless quality to the way it was told. Ultimately it proposed certain ideas about the perception of classical art and how it was valued by the present world through interpretations and endless interpretations. The varied interpretation of the Odyssey inside Contempt was a sneaky device. It brought to light the variety of meanings that could be derived from the intersection of the classic and the modern. Specifically, how the Odyssey was interpreted by the characters yielded many openings into the story. The variety of views into the epic poem, and its correspondences with the marriage plot, became the launching pad for dichotomizing modernity and tradition, contemporary and classicism, civilization and savagery. Must we interpret the classics in our own time using our own zeitgeist or should we stick to the classical framework of Ulysses' heroism and nobility? Must the modern (and its attendant philosophical and psychological baggage) intrude so much on the sacrosanct value of the epic?

Riccardo wanted for his screenplay a version of the Odyssey that hewed closely to the supposed original intents of Homer ("made as Homer wrote it"). Rheingold, the movie director hired by Battista the producer, wanted a modern adaptation of it, with a Freudian spin on the relationship between Ulysses and Penelope ("in accordance with the latest discoveries in modern psychology"). The distance of time, the wide gulf between the ages, was very pronounced in this. "Dante is Dante: a man of the Middle Ages," said Rheingold. "You, Molteni, are a modern man." Ostensibly about the breakdown of a marriage, the novel could also be about the interpretation and reinterpretation of art through the ages. We were no longer just reading about one failing marriage but the contextual, literary clues behind it. The characters were now dishing out concepts like heroism and steadfastness, being civilized and being barbaric.

Was Emilia breaking off with Riccardo because he was "civilized", as Rheingold described him? If by "civilized" we mean not stepping on other toes, being politically correct, guided in life mainly by the invisible hand of materialism, prodded on by the selfish gene, then Riccardo must be it. He had a certain deficiency in his character, a certain insensitivity. He must be one of the most insensitive characters in fiction, rivaled to some extent by the intellectual coldness and rationality of Shimamura in Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country.

In Emilia's traditional view of the world, at least as Riccardo interpreted her, "civilized" alone would not cut it. Civilized might be the working of a pure intellect or reason. It is not empathy; one has to care sincerely, genuinely. Though not the literary type, Emilia was perhaps the better interpreter of feelings. Her actions spoke volumes—not in so many words as the wordy Riccardo spouted in his funk-filled memoir—about rejecting the imbalance in her husband's temperament, the "lack" that made him superfluous and less than a man.

Whether I was despicable or not—and I was convinced that I was not—I still retained my intelligence, a quality which even Emilia recognized in me and which was my whole pride and justification. I was bound to think, whatever the object of my thought may be; it was my duty to exercise my intelligence fearlessly in the presence of any kind of mystery.

By Riccardo's own admission, only his intellect could sustain him. Without it he would not be able to fully crystallize his thoughts and conjure the whole story. Emilia, for her part, would be sustained by the powerful feeling of contempt for him. Given the masculine forces vying for her attention, contempt could only be her handhold.

The modern novel, Borges believed, was a narrative devoid of heroes and knights and epic battles. It was filled with superfluous characters bound to degrade themselves by their own telling and bound only to demonstrate their epic psychological breakdown. Modernization was, necessarily, and according to Riccardo, a work "of debasement, of degradation, of profanation", which was how he described James Joyce's Ulysses, an adaptation with which Borges also had several issues.

The modern novel is the novel of literary criticism. How art is or ought to be perceived is already contained in it. Because it is already aware that it is a narrative construction (because its building block is complex memory), its artfulness is detected in this self-awareness. Modernism in novels like Moravia's, realist or otherwise, is already colored by interpretation, by mimicking and then flouting the conventions of literary criticism.

And so the characters in these novels would be intellectual and literary. They would not be typecast as hero or villain, and they would not be tied down by any labels. They would not commit to one neat explanation of their profound or banal situation. Instead they would go on, even after the last page; they would not cease to be the hero-character or the villain-character, to be Ulysses or to be Penelope. They would continue to speak and spin meanings and assert their unfathomable modernness. And the novelist would not allow any of these characters to have the last word.

The contribution of modern novels, imho, was proffering challenge to envision the alternative pathways, many views and perspectives, often the very opposite views of the popular and the commonplace, in fact. And to acknowledge that barbarity plays a role in exploring generous and compassionate ways of transacting with fellow human beings. If by "barbarity" we mean disabusing oneself of the ideal notion of politics, being pragmatic but not ruthless and unfeeling, accounting for savagery and pure appetite (the Battistas of the world), and sometimes wallowing in a funky tedium and emerging with a certainty that everything, the world, was not tidy and will never be.

Rheingold resumed: "And now I should like to explain some of my ideas to you. I presume you can drive and listen at the same time?"

"Of course," I said; but at that same moment, as I turned very slightly towards him, a cart drawn by two oxen appeared out of a side road and I had to swerve suddenly. The car heeled over, zig-zagged violently, and I had considerable difficulty in righting it, just in time to avoid a tree, by a narrow margin. Rheingold started to laugh. "One would say not," he remarked.

"Don't bother about that," I said, rather annoyed. "It was quite impossible for me to have seen those oxen. Go on: I'm listening."

In simple words, modernity was openness to ideas, driving and listening at the same time, trying to avoid freak accidents, trumping a calcified vision of a new world order. Bring in the daring adaptations. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Bring in literary criticism inside novels. Die Ästhetik des Widerstands by Peter Weiss. Perhaps years from now, someone would write or adapt in post-modern fashion a novel in which characters debate about the motivations of the characters in Contempt.


  1. This sounds great, and I think I even have it. Read The Conformist a couple of years ago and I promised myself some more Moravia.

  2. More Moravia is a good reader's resolution.