Saturday, 6 June 2009

Another passage from Márai

The husband speaking:

Look, I was going on fifty before I understood Tolstoy. I mean The Kreutzer Sonata. It seems to be about jealousy but that is not the true subject. This masterpiece talks about jealousy presumably because Tolstoy himself was painfully sensitive and had a jealous nature. But jealousy is nothing more than vanity. It is pitiful and contemptible. Oh yes, I know the feeling quite well… all too well. I almost died of it. But I am no longer jealous. Do you understand me? Do you believe me? Look at me. No, old man, I am no longer jealous because, at considerable cost, I overcame that vanity. Tolstoy still believed in some kind of solution and he assigned to women a role that is half-animal; he thought they should give birth and dress in sackcloth. That is a sick, inhumane solution. But the other alternative is just as sick and inhumane, the one that proposes women as showy decorative items, marvels of emotion. How can I respect, how can I give my heart and mind to someone who from the moment of rising to the hour of lying down does nothing but dress and preen herself as if to say, Here I am… who apparently wishes to make herself attractive to me by means of feather, fur and scent… though even that is a lie. She wants to be attractive to everyone, she wants to lodge the spore of desire in each and every man’s nervous system. That’s how we live. Movies, theatres, the street, the café, the restaurant, the baths, the hills, everywhere the same unhealthy excitement. Do you think nature requires all this?... Like hell it does, dear boy! Only one social arrangement, one mode of production requires it: the one in which women regard themselves as items for sale.

Yes, you’re right, I don’t, myself, have a better answer, a superior system of production and social exchange… all the others people have thought of to replace it have failed. I have to admit the fact that, in our system, a woman constantly feels obliged to sell herself, sometimes consciously, more often subconsciously. I don’t say every woman is conscious of being a commercial object… but I daren’t believe that exceptions don’t prove the rule. I don’t blame women: it is not their fault. This presentation of the self as something ‘on offer’ can feel deathly sad, especially the foolishness, the haughtiness, the ironically flirtatious performance of giving-oneself-airs when a woman feels under pressure because she is surrounded by others more beautiful, less expensive and more exciting. What is a woman to do with her life, both as woman and as a human being in this free market, when, as today, women outnumber men in every part of Europe, when competition has assumed a terrifying intensity? They offer themselves, some virtuously, with downcast eyes, like tremulous, highly-delicate flowers who continue trembling in private in case time passes and no one carries them away, others more consciously setting out each day like Roman legionaries fully aware of their imperial mission to vanquish the barbarian… No, my friend, we have no right to condemn women. The only right we may have is to pity them, and perhaps not even them, but ourselves, we men, who are incapable of solving this long, painful crisis in the great market-halls of civilization. It is constant anxiety. Wherever you go, wherever you look. And it is money that is behind it all, not all the time maybe but in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred human miseries. That is the subject the saintly wise author of The Kreutzer Sonata never mentions in his furious indictment…

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