In New York you’re always from somewhere else, and so when people ask me my provenance, I tell them I’m from the South. The South of another country.
In the imagination of anyone who’s ever heard of Odessa, it is a city of sea, sun, boulevards, strolling beauties, life-altering food, color and culture, crime and literature, music and danger – The Pearl by the Sea that richly deserves the moniker. Her sailors are brave, her women headspinningly gorgeous, her gangsters stylish and ruthless, her atrocities particularly horrific. Her most famous musicians – Oistrakh, Milstein, Gilels – world-class and sublime, and the writers – Babel, Ilf & Petrov, Paustovsky, Olesha – all sui generis, the poets of prose, funny and gritty and lyrical and grotesque. The English-language equivalent of the Odessa School would have to be Southern Gothic – with allowances, naturally, for the city’s neoclassical architecture.
I was brought to Odessa at ten days and taken out of it at eleven years of age. Mine was a charmed childhood in a magical place; I didn’t know what I had until I lost it. Ten years later, I returned – a New Yorker inured to skyscrapers, few to no stray dogs in few to no dilapidated courtyards, and a sense of the world as my oyster. Why, then, from the moment I stepped onto the veined tarmac and smelled the good old leaded fumes of my childhood, did I still see this city as my own Pearl by the Sea? What is it that makes me return, each time surfing a different wave to the same shore? My former life here? The special angle of the sun? The beauty? The squalor?
Speak to anyone who’s given this careful consideration over an aperitif at one of the finer establishments on the main drag, Deribasovskaya, and you’ll learn that, even for a rootless cosmopolitan, Odessa’s paradoxical, enduring appeal goes beyond the predictable rose-colored recollections of a childhood by the sea. No. It feeds on the generally palpable store of specific energy and gravity: the product of the talent, the drive, the thirst for life, the savoir faire of its inhabitants – the accreted greatness that Odessa exudes.
Like Jerusalem, Rome or Istanbul, or the Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus of yore – Odessa’s got it. It’s a bit of a navel, an omphalos; a center of the world for those who have no choice but to orbit it; a Jerusalem on the shores of the Black Sea. Every Jerusalem needs an exile story and a diaspora, and so in the produce-laden bodegas beneath the clatter of the elevated train on Brighton Beach, exposed to the gradient winds blowing through San Francisco harbor, and at practically every point on the compass rose: in unbalmy Chicago and promenade-weary Miami, in wrong-weather Canada and even in Auroville – a speck on the map in southeastern India, where 2200 neo-hermits built their own city, complete with quality cafés and a world-class non-denominational temple – one finds the faithful denizens of The Pearl by the Sea gravitating toward each other, creating community, telling jokes and somehow managing, as ever, to collectively lighten the individual load.
Indeed, to many, Odessa is a byword for a state of mind, the same way Jewish mystics of an ecumenical bent say Jewishness is a state of mind. One could even argue that there is an Odessa-space out there that’s time- and location-agnostic. In the minds of the city’s most ardent apologists, in contrast to the flat, Euclidian planes of the wider world, Odessa-space is, in the manner of non-Euclidian geometries, hyperbolic and elliptical, which is to say: exaggerating and oracular, larger-than-life and cryptic, out-of-this-world and G-d-only-knows.
It’s a state people aspire to – so much so that when I tell Russian speakers anywhere on Earth that I’m from Odessa, they rush to establish urban cred by recollecting that seaside vacation of thirty years’ vintage or impressing me with an Odessa joke, told – in an instance of well-meaning cultural blackface – in amateurish hyperbole of what they believe Odessa speech to be. In short, it’s a club and a cult, and people want to belong.
But, oh, you’ll find detractors aplenty. The Odessa old guard who didn’t leave even in the 80s, when everyone left, and the grumpy old men from Brooklyn who did leave and now visit once a year, spending half an August day next to you at that outdoor café on Deribasovskaya, ogling the women, intoning the old refrain: it ain’t what it used to be. ‘Hordes of barbarians from the outskirts have invaded. And where is the quality of the laughs, the level of color we had two generations ago?’ They lament. ‘All the construction is in the wrong places, and none of the roads are any good. The people are gone, the flavor is stale, even the shadows the plane trees cast on the cobblestones aren’t quite what they were. The tomatoes, too, aren’t beefy or salty or sweet enough. And when the tomatoes go…’ Well, it’s curtains for the whole city.
Somehow, though, we aren’t convinced. We’ve heard it all before. Somehow we’re sure that the place will pull through, guided by the playful strictness of the architecture, buttressed by that eternal Odessa pluck, inspired by its own record of overcoming war, famine, pestilence, and human folly.
One would think that life in a city that’s mothered so many great writers follows a certain literary logic, and there is, to be sure, a narrative magic to the lives of Odessa’s inhabitants. It’s as if the local air is ever condensing a film atop the visible reality, making it that much more cinematic. And so, to truly belong, you must live the dangerous dream, undertake the risk-laden journey, dive headlong into an ever-moving picture – whether it’s finally forming that racketeering startup you’d dreamed of since early childhood, or immigrating to a faraway country and making it big, all for the glory of Momma Odessa. The boon is this: once lived, this alternate reality is yours for the taking, anywhere you go. The great violinist Isaac Stern (someone not from Odessa, for once) once distilled the essence of U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange thus: “They send us their Jews from Odessa, and we send them our Jews from Odessa”.
Thus the chestnut about taking the boy out of Odessa habitually rolls down Primorsky Boulevard and comes to rest at the top of the Odessa Steps. Try though The Big Apple might have to take the Odessa out of me – somehow, despite the distance, the passage of time, the shifts in worldview and demographics, Odessa The Great Enchantress has never left me. Is it because she’s suffused me with the languorous glow of mother-of-pearl childhood memories? Or won me over time after time with the sage resilience encoded in her inimitable, indefatigable humor? Or is it something more idiosyncratic and more powerful?
Odessa, Odessa! Your embarrassment of riches: literary, musical, culinary, attitudinal – all of that matrilineal patrimony! – resonates within me; daily and non-weakly; with the very credo so often, so famously attributed to New Yorkers. That stark conviction that anyone who chooses to be anywhere else has got to be, in some sense, kidding.
An earlier version of this essay was published by The Odessa Review.
As a rule, people work with their hands. Many also employ legs. Some find they need to put their bodies into it. But those who use their genitals to perform paid work are inhabitants of the demimonde at best, immoral in the minds of most. Much of the world employs sex workers, but sex work is naturally hush-hush, taboo, bad.
And so, it makes a sort of sick sense that allowing Israel, the omphalos and uterus of Western civilization, to be a functioning state – i.e. to perform work in this world, instead of existing merely as a sterile representation of an Apollonian ideal of pure spirituality – is somehow felt by many to be a travesty, a whoring out of a mother figure; the worst possible sin. Hence, the right of Israel to exist and to conduct the business of making its citizens well cared for, prosperous, and protected is scowled at, begrudged, innately disallowed, and endlessly wished away by unintelligible multitudes.
At a certain age we learn and even eventually accept the fact that our parents did the nasty in order to bring us about. Naturally, the last thing we want is to know that they regularly repeat this crime against our filial sensibilities. Imagine how up in arms we would be if we suddenly had to witness the offense time and again, and – what’s worse – registered proof of pleasure from the process.
No, no. The loins that engendered Western civilization must stay as chaste and free of use as possible, even if that means that they become once again backward and derelict, overtaken by thicket and swamp. No healthy intercourse with the world, please. Keep it unreal and otherworldly for the truly faithful.
And now, for some contrast. Americans like to see themselves as the shining city on a hill, a paragon of democracy and liberal, pluralistic values. In truth, America – the paragon of muscular capitalism, home of the least-bridled form of enterprise extant, unsaddled with a history of claims to being the land where history began or the world was created – may, in the eyes of its most jingoistic citizens, and even in the view of much of the Western world, do whatever and however it wants. It can and does routinely invade countries anywhere on the planet, maintain a network of bases in hundreds of sovereign nations, and facilitate regime changes as per the geopolitical fad du jour. It can yawn at the tens of millions of indigenous people dead as the direct result of Manifest Destiny, at the millions forcefully brought to its shores, for centuries denigrated, denied anything like humanity, maintained in poverty and imprisonment. It can do all this, and no one much minds, simply because an eagle is an eagle, after all. It was created to lord over its domain, to kill what it must eat. It is a bird of prey; aggression is its way and wont.
Israel, on the other hand – a Cathedral, a receptacle in which the Almighty is meant to dwell – can do no right in the eyes of the international community for the simple reason that it is bad form, and highly unacceptable, to display generative organs publicly, much less to showcase their workings – all the more so their exemplary, unprecedented, somehow Nobel Prize-winning activity. It is in this sense that the Jews of Israel, and world Jewry by extension, are these days considered dirty, kind of like the dirty Jews of old: because they have dared to sully the Land of G-d with actual mundane, human existence, with real life – and a highly successful one at that.
Jerusalem, then, is allowed to remain a shining city on a hill – but only if the effulgence originates in purely spiritual ardor. G-d forbid there should be planning and security, stability and husbandry, science and technology, arts and humanities, transparency and the open exchange of ideas, the rule of law and democracy, government and accountability. Nay. Let Jerusalem be Madonna or nothing. And for trying to be both a holy and a growing city, both the capital of three religions and the capital of a living, breathing state – may it be branded a Whore and pilloried with holier-than-thou hypocrisy till the end of days.
Thus the sons and daughters, the grandchildren and sundry other progeny of Judaism lecture gray-haired Sarah on the way to be in this world, and Sarah laughs her laugh of knowledge and sorrow, and proceeds to be the Mother of a world only a mother can love, at a cost only a mother can bear.
This essay was originally published on The Times of Israel blog.
She is shaped like an athletic amphora, a black Spartan vessel of elegance and fury.
Seconds in, she goes a capella; no guitar roulades needed to accompany her. She’s a force of nature and she stands alone, except that she doesn’t stand for a moment.
She is boyish and wears hip-hugging pants, but she is woman – oh so woman because two years ago she was still a girl, one can sense it, but she’s crossed into womanhood and is firmly in it – yet there is no dress, no folds, no castañedas, even, and if they are there, they’re tiny, concealed in her palms, and even the movements of the arms are different: there’s less waving about and self-hugging and more pure output of energy. How majestically and scarily controlled it is.
She could rightly be called a reactor; she is that incandescent; except that it’s the wrong word, because she doesn’t react – she creates; creates a maelstrom. She’s a black hole, with her own event horizon and firewall that vaporizes you as you breach it. She requires her own vocabulary, she is that much of a phenomenon, and in the absence of it, we’re borrowing from the discipline that attempts to understand stars, galaxies and universes – physics.
And she is physical beyond theory, but in the gossamer way of a tungsten filament, thin and burning and giving off blinding light. At times she stomps, lightning-quickly, from the knees, with pronated shins, so that she seems a child, a beautiful, severe girl in black, with a crown of hair, a bell of hair… And then she throws her head back and around with a checked violence, a great nuclear nanosecond of release, – and everything escalates beyond possibility or ability to keep up.
We are now at another level of concentration – on her and her new flamenco, and at that level she’s indifferent to everything around her except for rhythm and the exquisite torment of the performance – the creation of high art in real time; indifferent to everything but indifference; she won’t tolerate it! She will draw you in and make you care, make you stop breathing you’re so drawn in.
And then she slows it down by degrees, reducing the rhythm from a proud, rolling rage to a strict, strict staccato, a pitter-patter, and then attenuated rocking caresses of the stage with her exquisitely small, heartbreakingly heeled leather shoes.
She tictocs minutely.
She is 17 years old.
This year she turns 70, a contented grandmother, her shooting star of a career long behind her.
The tragedy is that we have precious little of her talent to console ourselves with. The miracle is that Antonia Singla Contreras – La Singla – one of the great flamenco dancers of modernity, a hurricane of grace and uniquely feminine power, was brought into this world a deaf-mute. La Múa the neighborhood kids used to call her.
Now, tell me: is this a cruel place? Or is it a wonderful world after all?
“Shall we go to Pizza Redentore?”
“Sure” I say, “Redentore, Salvatore – any one of those will do -”
“Ah! By the way, Salvatore is very good… Ma Salvatore é benissimo! We will call them.”
But it turns out Salvatore is too busy saving souls through heavenly pizza. We place all our hope for redemption in Redentore, and toward that end cross piazzi, walk down many cobblestone streets, and finally over a bridge that itself first walked over the Adige around 2100 years ago. Faced with a telltale facade, with Redentore in periwinkle neon, I realize it’s another deconsecrated church. I balk, but then one of us, a Veronesa, reminding me of Il Duomo, Sant’Anastasia, San Zeno et al, is there to reassure, “there are enough churches left in Verona”.
I end up leaving for Milano the next day without paying homage at the balcony of Romeo e Giulietta, which is exactly what I wanted, but not without finding in this city – despite not looking, or perhaps because of it – a sense of beauty so pervasive, effortless, and Romantic that, even if Romeo and Juliet never existed in Verona, which they didn’t, they would have had to be placed here – as they were. As ever: Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
* * *
The thousand-year-old churches in this city, and their bell towers, and the ever-present old marble arches, with their stones worn by moisture to look like sugar cubes; all this age and beauty, this art, long in the tooth – a constant reminder of the calamity of so short life.
But let us end on a positive note. As I’m about to board a plane from Milano to NYC, an airline employee takes my passport and, in response to a polite buongiorno, asks matter-of-factly, Data del rientro? I stare. He switches to English, asking me whether I live “there”, the there being NYC. I admit that I do. But he assumed that I’m Italian, even if for a second. Which might mean that, after all, all this time in this land-of-the-way-things-should-be has not gone to waste.
Until next time. Alla prossima volta, bella!
Leaving gassy, noisy, rumoroso Pompei behind, we arrive – 500km and Campania, Lazio, Umbria, and Toscana later – in Firenze.
Of course, Florence is, naturally, so harmonious, that it has rightly become mauvais ton not just to say how beautiful and great it is, but even to mention how it has become mauvais ton to say how beautiful and great it is. A sophomore Art History major, visiting on a day trip from the American Academy in Rome, was recently disemboweled in an alley off Piazza Palazzo Pitti by a gang of UNO (United Nihilist Ord) blackshirts after having the gall to pontificate aloud on the Floral City’s manifold aesthetic advantages. Playing it safe, I am writing this on a Frecciargento train bound for Verona. It has just left Bologna, where Umberto Eco’s ghost nods approval to the strict punishment meted out to the clueless American student of beauty.
With me I take small marks left as a result of an uneven battle with florentine mosquitos, who, in the best traditions of the Medicis, work with stiletti, not broadswords, leaving behind sharp, tiny mounds of agony instead of the expansive, inelegant welts that are the telltale signs of their North American colleagues at work.
Yet what will stay with me the longest is a kind of aural blessing received while going down the interminable steps of Giotto’s Campanile. I am still in the top fifth of the tower as the bells come alive, sound waves reverberating off of two-foot-thick stone walls, criss-crossing, pressuring and deforming each other, my head moving through this melange, absorbing it. I continue to the bell chamber below, where the ringing is almost unbearable, and then, immediately, lower – to the fourth fifth of the tower, directly below the bells, where the din dries up some. The ringing lasts no more than a minute, but takes place precisely as I pass through three bands of the Campanile: above, at, and below the bells.
* * *
I fix the look of Florence in my mind as she lies straddling the Arno: like a Renaissance maja, supremely confident in her power to seduce, and therefore still – small of gesture, vast of effect.
The sum and essence of her own statuary, all Florence the majestic courtesan has to do is stand there, lie there, knowing full well that the spell has been cast, and that whoever has visited once, will be back again, and again, and again.
Directly across the street from the Porte di Napoli there is a caffetteria / juice bar – I get the “Profumata”: fennel root, pineapple, and apple, chased by a multigrain croissant and an Americano – where a big-breasted mother with eyes that grab you and a vast rayon tank top is at the cash register. Her 40-year-old son, in rolled-up white shirt-sleeves and black apron, dispenses espressi. We get to chatting in some non-existing Italian on our part and a bit of halting English on his.
He has been to Mexico, once, via Ft. Lauderdale – but not to New York, where we say we are from, and for which he has an appreciative pull up of the chin and a Neapolitan hand wave that could change weather patterns. There is a tired intelligence in his eyes, and as he gives his weight to a large lever operating the espresso machine and then presses up on it, he rests a temple against the biceps, wiping the sweat and boredom of a life behind the counter, and I sense that, if not for the patrimony of these 20 square meters of commercial space on the waterfront,
and the responsibility felt to his overbearing mother after his father had left or died too young he could have been somebody. Instead of a barista, which is what he is.
Later, as we pull out of port towards Capri, the waves are capped in sparkling, sharded crystal purple. I discover by accident that it is only visible through polarized sunglasses. Maybe that’s the secret to seeing everything here in the right light.
On the ferry back to Napoli, the flatscreens in all the compartments are showing Torto e Ragione – Il Verdetto Finale, a family-court-type reality show. The sound is piped in extra-loud through the ceiling speakers. The judge is a blonde cougar, an angular red, black, and white 80s dress under her undone robes revealing serious cleavage. She smiles obligingly when the defense attorney smiles suggestively and makes goo goo eyes at her. Surely there’s some serious legal spread-eagling going on between tapings.
It’s a custody case and there’s a lot of animated, convinced talking over each other, but one thing everyone can agree on is the necessity of being well-dressed, which they most emphatically are, including a 77-year-old grandma who looks like a tenured high priestess in flowing, tailored black, creme, and gold silk robes and a full head of glorious white hair the hue of a noble-bred pigeon’s wing. Also: tastefully applied mascara. The other women – including the stereotypically mercenary, ill-figured, ill-tempered prosecutor – wear high heels; even the long-suffering mother in danger of losing her baby girl to a rapacious absentee father. She’s also wearing an endearing floral-patterned grotesco dress with an elegant yet family-oriented cut.
Finally, the jury is given its marching orders, first by one side, then the other; it files out to deliberate. A camera spies on their pros and cons, the 12 deciders a perfect cross section of an ideal Italian society, age-, race-, and gender-wise. True and glorious Commedia dell’Arte this is.
I’m in Italy for ten days, meandering from Lecce to Verona via Firenze, stopping here and there, everywhere. Sure, one shouldn’t confuse tourism with immigration, but if I may be permitted to say this: Italia, paese meraviglioso – ti voglio bene!
From the top of the muscular white swan of the Jadrolinija Split–Vis ferry I watch the wake striating the deep-blue-sea navy of the water, but any thought it could have of creating a lasting tide is naive: its stark white crests dissipate into a sort of piping on the folds of a great skirt before transforming into swirling aquamarine, blending into the two halves of the Adriatic momentarily left behind the ship. This shade of blue I have never encountered before, neither tint nor intensity. It’s a hue that ensorcels, that has ways to make you talk, yet, in the end, leaves you speechless.
Once on Vis, the island, we are whisked by a local couple – Jélena, a former triathlete with the finely defined musculature of a thoroughbred and a tired smile, and her beau Alf, née Hrvoje, a balding, thin, silent, efficient type who chain-smokes hand-rolleds – along a twisting road to a beach featuring large white pebbles and extra-clear turquoise water. А few feet in, the bottom drops out, but since you always see it, you never know the depth. We dive with eyes open, legs flailing, yet at 30 meters from shore we never reach the porous white rock below, though it seems ever within reach.
Next is a short hop to Alf’s clifftop cabana bar overlooking a placid lagoon. There are nine of us, and we take two cars. I am here with my friends, masters of yoga masterclasses and spa retreats, who travel the world and even run a destination travel company, Qi Yo Travel, but even they are in a for a surprise. What we see as we arrive, entirely unexpected – as I, at least, did not prepare for this outing by reading any Lonely Planet literature on the Blue Grotto or environs – is, essentially, a 360-degree postcard. I notice that the benches we’re sitting on are made of long army-green ammunition boxes with writing on them in English, an incongruous echo of the war that raged here over 20 years ago. Later, as we skip down a lava-rock slope, pile onto a little white cutter, make it to the famous grotto and then back to the cabana to flowing cold drinks, huge vegetarian salads in the making, and the promise of fresh-caught grilled fish, the whole enterprise threatens to devolve into a too-good-to-be-true version of a Mediterranean paradise.
Dusk comes first to the sea. The lagoon ripples with the gentlest of shimmers, and a gossamer net covers the water, its top-surface a luminous ginger, inside each rhomboid opening a colorless dapple of sea. I look ahead to a yellow-green fire engulfing the trees massed on the opposite hill. The net is its reflection. And still, the color of water that stays with me is the one I saw spreading as far as the eye could see that morning, on the Jadrolinija.
In the dark, by the light of ancient cast-iron-and-glass lanterns smoking to high heaven, there is ground-walnut strudel and – this cannot possibly be, and yet – homemade sour-cherry liqueur that is nothing less and little more than the quintessence of that most noble of berries, and even fruits. Sated, intoxicated, we crane our heads up to see stars galore and the yogurtous swirls of the galaxy, and if we could just extinguish the fuming lanterns, the sky would be crisp and deep-blue-sea-dark enough to perhaps see the future.
But if someone extinguishes them, it won’t be clear who has pilfered the last of the strudel, drained the remaining liqueur, and so we strain our eyes, seeking our next falling star, and I wonder what all of this means; whether I could recapture that shade of blue, furrowed by lamb-crests of wake, that I had seen from the top of the ferry, and whether one should even try.
In Milano on Ferragosto, the festival celebrating the Assumption of Mary, walking through the felicitously planned, carelessly groomed park around the Castello Sforzesco, you hear dancing. They’ve just finished singing the immortal, shameless Toto Cutugno hit L’Italiano as you spy the big white tent with no walls, and come closer and see a roiling crowd of rhythmic seniors dancing to the music, getting their juice from a middle-aged couple singing onstage.
She’s a long-haired brunette with white skin and a girl’s earnest voice, in wide-legged white pants, and she’s got just the tiniest bit of a camel-toe when she hitches them up across the swath of belly towards the tiny black top while blowing, out of breath, up on her bangs because she’s hot, and you can see the opaque front pockets shining through the white linen pants on her hips, and she’s fanning herself with some cheap disposable fan between verses, making smiling flamenco gestures with her hands, and the impromptu-dancing audience is loving the generation-old tunes she and her too-tanned partner with Roman hair and a hoop in the ear are belting through an amateur-sounding audio system, and it’s a real feria of an atmosphere and everyone is twenty-five years younger and there’s racial and gender and all other kinds of harmony in effect.
The women in this city, by the way – the 45-and-over set – are unabashedly, gloriously sexy: bright-eyed, tanned and wide-hipped, impossibly slim-waisted for their or any age, squeeze-breasted, with fine lace bras peeking out of their, say, aquamarine summer dresses that show plenty of leg, the occasional burst of cellulite or varicose vein on the satin skin notwithstanding. They feel beautiful and they smile and smile, and it all works for them, in the sense that it works for them and their audience. Maybe it’s Ferragosto or maybe – in this city of effortless, airborne feel for style – maybe they’re born with it.
In the evening, after a meal organically balanced between salty and bitter, wine and fish, sprezzatura and conversazione, you walk along an old residential street when, in a quintessentially Italian moment of the horsehair canvassing of cinema that undergirds life becoming just barely visible through the quotidian fabric, one looks up to see a man in a third-floor room in this old quarter of Milano – so the ceilings are high – sitting before a flat-screen TV mounted high, looking up in devotion, his face illuminated, gaze transfixed, high on the bare wall behind him a picture of Mary.
An image right out of Reality.
There either is the ineffable understanding that a creating force or spirit exists – or there isn’t. If there is, no reasoning is needed for persuasion; this force is felt and seen as clearly as we feel our bodies, see a sunrise. If there isn’t, no mountain of numbers or fact-based arguments will succeed, since everything may always be attributed to some mechanical or random explanation.
Ultimately, it’s about whatever leaves one content, without either camp forcing its ideas on the other. And yet I cannot help but think how bereft of wonder must be a world and a worldview in which every thing can be explained and there is no room for what we humans consider miraculous or ‘out of this world’ – that is to say: beyond our ability to fathom it with the faculty of reason alone.
Love, after all, is beyond reason – and even anti-reason – and yet we place it on a pedestal and worship it. Is it, then, that much of a stretch to conceive of a larger, universal love that is the will and energy which continually create and sustain the world?
The point being made – and it may be too esoteric or occult or right-brained or, if you will, wholehearted for some to apprehend – is that there is a knowledge beyond what we call feeling, and certainly beyond what we call empirical knowledge. The latter may arrive at information provided long ago by – let’s, at the risk of blowing someone’s mind, call it – the knowledge of the heart, but it cannot equal or surpass this information. Those who know, know, i.e. perceive and apprehend the awe-some oneness of the universe, not merely the kaleidoscopic beauty of its individual fragments interacting. Those who don’t believe in this type of knowledge should, at the very least, listen to a few hours of my man Alan Watts, to whom I now pass the baton.
“The mind is a terrible thing to worship. Blow your minds on a regular basis, my friends. Breathe. Meditate. For an hour each day, don’t think. Blow your minds.”
Before stopping for the night in Las Cruces, NM, traveling west on I-70, at 80-some miles per hour I passed a sign reading ‘White Sands National Monument’. I slowed down and kept going for half a mile, but something made me turn around. A good thing, too. It was the sunset hour. Driving a mile into the national park, past the place where you pay $3 to the two rangers in the guard booth, you see the asphalt turn white. Another three miles on this path brings you to a land of dunes – great white dunes set against mountains blue from the angle of the light and a pastel sky burning in the west with the sunset, filtered through laminae of heat and dust and clouds. And the clouds over these dunes of gypsum sands are creatures of pure light, shorn of heft, filled with nothing but air and a sort of purity of existence. They simply are. These clouds don’t seem at all painted, yet if there could be a picture of heaven, of a clarity and beauty at the level of Revelation, of G-d communicating with the world via light and its cousin, color, it would probably look like this:
Over the keyboard of a concert grand in an overlit recording studio, barely noticing the Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra behind him, which he directs sporadically, sits a hunchback with large hands, using them to play Bach and to dramatically brush back thick strands of his James-Dean-worthy hair. The next second reveals that it is a man with a palsy, his face contorted into a grimace corresponding to a pain of 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the next shows the face of a man of, say, 27, in a simple black v-neck sweater, still playing Bach, and playing him with a facility and assuredness that are uncanny, otherworldly. Frightening.
He has large brown eyes, sensuous red lips, the aforementioned good hair, a balanced face. He is lanky, not too tall, not too short, and has the pouncing gait and reflexive body language of a young rocker. He is an amalgam of the young Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and, appropriately, since he is playing Bach – Glenn Gould.
On his face passing intimations of epiphany, tragedy, clairvoyance, the pain of intolerable pleasure, the ravishment of seeing G-d’s own face, an imbecile’s Napoleonic grandstanding, the disarming directness of a child, and dozens others and half-others register before crumbling into the next grimace. To say that he is too much would be to say nothing at all. It would make much more sense to ask who gave this character the weekend pass from the insane asylum.
His eyes pop, his neck veins bulge, his fingernails are bitten and frayed. One moment his head is back in receipt of divine grace, the next, mouth open over the keyboard, he is gasping for air, biting at unseen magic dragonflies.
He’s brisk to the point of brusqueness. He hectors the orchestra, however Frenchly. “Obsession!” he growls, looking into the players’ eyes for a response (a waste of time, as they are German, tenured, and simply not used to this kind of crazed passion). “You have to be like a psychopath on this, no?”
To add to all of this, he periodically comments into a microphone to Etienne, his audio engineer, in French, of course, on the sound of the orchestra and on his general impression of the whole thing (seldom favorable). Not surprisingly, the camera registers many an arched eyebrow and eye roll from the players.
And then the director treats us to splices of him at the piano in some stylized basement, a light scarf waiting to slip off his shoulder, explaining his understanding of the same passages in an impenetrable grounds-of-Versailles-stroll-avec-parasol-et-petit-poodle French, condescendingly transmogrified into tiny English subtitles for the benefit of non-Francophone viewers.
He is maudlin, mawkish, hyperbolic, histrionic. He prefers abstractions, philosophy and top-heavy metaphors for the simplest descriptions; in short, he’s French. He makes faces that would get a third-rate actor booted from last-minute auditions to be an early-morning weekend children’s party clown for a provincial town’s Orphans & Widows Society. He is off-putting, grotesque, quite possibly disingenuous. He is the very picture of an overbearing, pompous, self-absorbed, overintellectualizing snob. Did we mention that he speaks English with a clownish French accent? We did mention, didn’t we, that he’s French?
His criticism is on-target, his suggestions relevant, ideas original. “Bach’s point is not virtuosity. His point is to bring matter more intensely to the boiling point!” His insights are not trite, his generalizations highly inspired. As he finally teases the sound he’s always had in his head from the players, we start seeing smiles of genuine wonder on their faces. His musical instinct is impeccable. He is one exasperatingly annoying bastard, but he’s pretty close to genius.
“How can you play Bach after Glenn Gould?” ask the liner notes for this 2008 film by Bruno Monsaingeon. This is how.
Drop everything and listen for yourself.
The life of a freelancer affords no community. This much has been well documented and is plainly plain. And membership in The Freelancers’ Union – much advertised – only takes you so far.
Imagine my delight, then, when, on only my third day in Tel Aviv I got to meet the upstairs neighbors during two consecutive air-raid sirens, which we spent on my landing. I learned that one of them understands Russian (no snide remarks behind his back in the Czar’s English for me) and that his family is from St. Petersburg, although he’s never been. “Go,” I said; “Putin had the city renovated 10 years ago for its 300th anniversary, and the paint’s still not spalling too badly. It’s beautiful; go.”
As I went back inside my apartment for the second time, back I went to a project I had to do for a client in besieged Ukraine who needed translations of some speeches made at the mid-May Moscow Conference on International Security. Between taking shelter in Tel Aviv and working into American English on the subject of security in Moscow – all for a client in Kiev – geopolitics was certainly playing a role in my evening. Some of the delegates at the conference: Iran, Syria, Belarus – in short, Psychos Descend On Red Square For Sleazefest as The New York Post doubtless would have put it. With a pro forma dedication, the speech of the Iranian Minister of Defense was off to a high-flying start: “In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate!”
Somewhere towards the beginning, there was this sentence: “In my capacity as the Minister of Defense of a country that itself is the victim of blind, mercenary terrorism, which, unfortunately, enjoys support and protection from those who present themselves as “fighters against terrorism” and “defenders of human rights”, I hereby declare that the government and people of Iran are, as they have always been, against any form of terrorism, especially state terrorism.”
Funny, I thought, how life works. Here I am, sitting under a bit of a hail of rockets that peace-loving Hamas militants received as a token of appreciation from Iran – although the gift must’ve been laced with a smidgen or two of disgusted condescension, since in private these descendants of the once-great Persian empire will tell you of their misgivings about dealing with Arabs, since they are, and I quote, “Semites” – yes, so here I am, stayin’ alive, and translating some not-too-on-the-level words by an Iranian leader. Although all for a good cause, since the Ukrainian client is a think tank.
I thought warmly about my two newly-met neighbors and about the possibility of, say, grabbing an Americano and, say, labneh laced with silan at the café across the street with one of them, and perhaps discussing the crucial differences in cool-kid clichédom between the Tel Aviv and New York hipster scenes in some halting Hebrew for me and a little kindergarten Russian for him. In short, I thought of making friends – building that vaunted community everybody’s so up in arms about, as if it were manna from heaven. Then I thought that if Hamas really wanted to fool people, as if they haven’t already, they could completely re-brand themselves, with a nice picture of families huddling in a concrete staircase, away from windows and facades, doubled over in communal laughter and visceral camaraderie, with the slogan: HAMAS. Connecting People.
My daydream over, I surveyed the speech. The Minister of Defense was out on a minute digit tracing back to a joint extending from a limb, but no less blithely confident for it:
“As my presentation comes to a close, please allow me to declare that the Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the past three decades has made greater efforts than any other country to bring into existence regional and international stability and security, and in connection with this took important steps in order to defuse crises and problems having to do with security in Central Asia, in the Caucuses, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and Palestine, will continue these efforts uninterruptedly.”
God bless him, I thought. At least someone’s trying. Allah, I mean. Allah bless him.
And then I remembered how, the day before, when I was in Jerusalem, which was inexplicably also being attacked – “Not *my* Eternal Capital!” says a kerchiefed fighter of freedom as he loads up a hissing projectile into a heinous ejectile – I had seen the darndest thing. A Breslaw Chassid, a middle-aged man in an old car, with his white prophet’s beard waving like a flag out of the open window, was chugging up a hill, one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding a plastic gun dispensing soap bubbles. He had a beatific smile on his face, and in the hush of the sunset hour he bellowed: “Don’t you worry, my children. These rockets, they are empty. Empty like these soap bubbles. Don’t you worry. We will overcome.” A heavily tattooed woman stopped and blew him a big wet one from the sidewalk.
This post was first published on the Times of Israel blog: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tin-over-tel-aviv/
Marina Abramović and Ulay started an intense love story in the 70s. When they felt the relationship was ending, they walked the Great Wall of China, each from one end, meeting for one last big hug in the middle and never seeing each other again. At her 2010 MoMa show Marina shared a minute of silence with each stranger who sat in front of her. Ulay arrived without her knowing, and this is what happened.
Here is another way things can work out.
The Sun of Russian Poetry – 1/8th African – rendered in Ebonics for the first time.
* * *
Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.
* * *
I used to be mad into you; and maybe
The sh*t I felt for you ain’t gone nowhere.
But that ain’t none of your damn business, foxy lady!
Your job is to be happy, not to care.
I loved you… though I got ‘returned to sender’.
Though sh*t was on the DL, I could kill!
And ’cause my feelings was so true, so tender,
The money take my place – best keep sh*t real!
Однажды я не любил одну женщину.
Я не любил ее активно. Моя активность, правда, внушила женщине, что я ее люблю. Так физическое отличается от душевного.
Мы встретились в кружке тай-чи. У нее кошачья фигура и большие серые глаза. Она хлопала ресницами в моем направлении и водила бедрами уходя в ином. Я наблюдал, ибо не замечать все это было бы еще пошлей.
Делала она все это с чувством меры. Все в ней было со вкусом и еще чуточку пере. Одевалась она феерически; но в том то и дело – что слегка вызывающе. Глаза были очень светлые и слишком большие, бедра выдающиеся, аромат тончайший, вкус головокружительный. Всего чуточку пере. В самый раз она была, кроме характера.
Было в нем что-то стальное, с примесью молибдена и старых традиций качества. Из нее получился бы знатный японский клинок, но на поле боя я оказался с белорусской ведьмой.
Волосы пшеничные, ржаные, с вереском. Кожа смуглая, изгиб поясницы маловероятный, губы пухлые, губы многогранные. Руки костлявые. Это видимо выдавало ведьменную ее натуру. Ухаживала она за собой, как служанка за Клеопатрой, к встречам нашим готовилась тщательно, профессионально, бесконечно. На ее прикроватном столике я как-то увидел книгу Искусство романа; читать, а тем более писать, романы времени у нее не было.
По этому всему, любя ее я не позволял себе влюбиться в нее.
* * *
Я сидел у нее на кожаном диване, недалеко от самой южной точки Манхэттена. Мы уже погуляли по микрорайону; был теплый майский вечер. Поели; она сказала, заходя со мной в кафе: Мужчину нужно сначала накормить, а то от голодных – никакого толку. Поговорили о пустяках и о разном; она все отсыпала мне комплименты. Я вроде знал, что где-то у нее есть муж, который давно не появлялся в Нью-Йорке. Сам я за день до этого прилетел откуда-то, где у меня была девушка. Прыгать из одной кровати в другую, да еще в чужую, я не собирался. Потом, в образовавшейся тишине, она сказала: Интересно, что будет если я сделаю вот так. Встала со своего кожаного дивана, поцеловала меня в губы и опять села. Такие выпады хорошо получались у нее в кружке тай-чи…
Бежать. Бежать не глядя. Надо было бы. Но мужская гордыня и лакомый кусок… Вот так все и началось. Чуть позже, я несколько минут извинялся перед ней за то, что часто бывает у мужчин когда они впервые оказываются в постели с определенной очень красивой женщиной. Потом извиняться было не за что. На следующее утро мы ехали в одном вагоне метро, рядом но далеко друг от друга.
Через пару недель, когда она уже говорила о том, что все это было суждено и предрешено (оказывается, ей один знакомый астролог посоветовал завести со мной роман) я написал ей:
Еще недели через две, когда я вошел в химическую зависимость от нее, а она от меня, я написал лишь полушутя:
* * *
И все-таки я убежал. Я уехал к той девушке, хотя уже думал только об этой. Она случайно узнала незадолго до моего отъезда и прореагировала очень ровно. Утром в августовский день отъезда я проснулся в ее благоухающей постели. Мои д’артаньяновские усы были пропитаны ее ароматом. Перед аэропортом я их сбрил.
Я вернулся через 7 недель по семейным делам и она неожиданно встречала меня в аэропорту. Самолюбию угодила, нечего сказать. Я повел ее в дорогой французский ресторан, где, обнаглев, позволил себе рапсодическую тираду по поводу того, как я скоро буду наслаждаться роскошной женщиной. Позже, не стерпев разницы во времени, я заснул в постели.
* * *
Еще через 7 месяцев я вернулся. К тому времени мы регулярно не общались. Потом я узнал, что она беременна от одного из медведей из кружка тай-чи. Это было облегчением, потому что теперь я знал, что стальной клинок в медовых ножнах придется носить иному. На ее дне рожденья я произнес тост, в котором желал ей в жизни стержня, вокруг которого она, как женщина, могла бы обвиться.
Я даже принес ей цветы в роддом. Потом я видел ее дочь, приносил какие-то подарочки. Потом, слишком теплым мартовским днем, она пригласила меня к себе. Я, как водилось раньше, купил изысканные французские сладости и, хорошо понимая, что должен был отказаться, поехал к ней. Только чай, говорил я себе.
Выглядела она как-то неестественно хорошо. Ребенка уложила быстро. А потом и меня.
Следов родов не было. Она восстановилась по-ведьменски. Сладость осталась та-же.
В середине мая в одночасье по всему Нью Йорку появилась сирень. Я знал, что она особенно ее любит. У прагматичного грека-цветочника я заказал душистый, тяжелый, дорогущий букет и послал его ей через весь город, приписав
Через некоторое время она предложила мне жениться на ней. В постели. Сказала, что ей нужно остаться в стране и что статус ей нужен сразу. Я должен был согласиться на то, что она обвинит меня в оскорблениях и угрозах и, пытаясь спасти ее от опасного мужа, иммиграционные органы дадут ей срочный статус. Я согласился на это. Так физическое отличается от умственного.
Мы даже ездили к юристу, которая все это мне объяснила, таким образом совершив преступление, достойное потери адвокатской лицензии. Мы решили устроить красивую микро-свадьбу в мэрии. Черный костюм и галстук, белая рубашка, новые туфли, кремовый платок из изысканнейшего французского шелка. Она купила дорогое кремовое платье, которое потом сдала. Когда мы выходили из загса, велокурьер, съезжавший с бруклинского моста засмотрелся на нее и полетел через руль, приземлившись у наших ног и бормоча извинения. Мы распили бутылку шампанского из бокалов в сквере мэрии, на виду у полицейских. Когда мы шли по Бродвею нас остановил аристократического вида путешественник с огромным рюкзаком за спиной и от души пожелал нам счастья в семейной жизни. Мне стало перед ним неудобно; по большей части это представление было блефом. Хотя и не полностью. Придя домой после ресторана, я взял ее на руки, а потом и в объятья, теперь – как жену, – и это было хорошо.
За несколько дней до свадьбы я, человек традиционных взглядов, написал ей письмо на красивой старой бумаге и запечатал его в плотном конверте сургучом со своим именным клеймом. Посредством этого письма я официально просил ее руки.
Дорогая и вожделенная мною Л.Л.!
Ввиду международной обстановки и не сложившихся обстоятельств, извольте ходить за меня замуж. Вы перевернули моё мироощущение аккурат вверх тормашками и, с некоторых пор, белый свет мне стал не мил без Вашей Светлости в качестве моей законной супруги. Так что, сделайте любезность и пойдите со мной под венец.
Ваша лепота и роскошные формы сразили бы любого. Так чем же хуже я всех остальных? Вроде ничем; а коль так, будьте добры да будьте моей благоверной.
Подумайте только: Ваша мудрость и прекрасный вкус схлестнутся с моим неизлечимым прекраснодушием и беспрестанным Вами восхищением. Не это ли идиллия? А кто-то еще что-то там говорил насчет шалаша в Финском заливе. Хотя я не против. Можно и в шалаше. Главное – чтоб не в грехе.
Словом, сделайте меня самым счастливым человеком на планете и станьте моей суженой. За мужней любовью дело не постоит, даю слово. Ну а о супружеском долге я и не заикаюсь… Надеюсь, Вам и так все ясно. Тут, знаете ли, страсть, какая страсть…
Ну что еще могу Вам такого ввернуть, чтобы Вы потеряли сомнения и голову?
Мужчина я скромный, но в одежде знаю толк. Если что, могу за наряд похвалить. За волосы ничего мне не стоит комплимент отпустить. Пью вино, но учитывая цены, алкоголизм мне не грозит. Курить не курю. О всем остальном вечном здесь даже как-то и неудобно.
Будет Вам от меня честь и хвала. Буду любить и жаловать. На руках также носить буду. Вкратце, вроде бы всё. Подробнее: дальше – больше.
Ходите, ходите замуж за меня, Ваша Светлость, не пожалеете.
Преданный Вам до гроба,
* * *
По утрам она часто переносила крошечную девочку свою к нам постель. Ребенок лежал между нами и смотрел на меня. Видимо она хотела, чтобы дочь привыкла ко мне.
Beauty is what I saw in the angle of her extended arm when she rested on it, half-asleep, as the baby cried in the morning, before fluttering out of bed to tend to it.
The beauty of form, as the angle of the arm reflected the line of her hip, where the elbow met the waist, the way it fit as she stood, walked, was.
Beauty of texture beguiled my even sleepy eyes with the undulating, complex waves and woven color of her wheat-and-rye hair. More than two feet long, this waterfall of blonde fabric was right there before me, too beautiful not to touch and kiss and dig my fingers into, even though I knew that it was distracting her from having to get up because the baby was still crying, awake, awet and asking for attention.
* * *
Позже, когда ленты бывшего банта распались на волокна, я попытался мысленно сфотографировать то, что не поддается ни языку, ни уму, и неизменно искажается – особенно воспоминаниями.
I need to commit the last time we made love to paper because it was so… sweet, yes, sweet, in every sense, as nothing I’d tasted before. I felt easy and sure, familiar with her desire. She was relaxed, holding nothing back, and flowered with such a sure, exquisite fragrance that, even though I was spoiled by her – knowing her – it was – yes – ecstasy just to inhale the pure parfume. This is the stuff that tries men’s souls and makes great fragrance houses in Grasse fear bankrupcy.
I need to write of our last time together before time makes it seem mythic, more majestic, more unearthly, more earthly or sweeter than it was.
* * *
Мы поехали за город, к ее знакомым. Предварительно она попросила меня прибить два волнистых зеркала в дочерней спальне. Формой они напоминали малайский кинжал. Чуть позже я почувствовал их под лопаткой.
Я задержался, возясь с дрелью и хлипкими стенами, и мы выехали на 15 минут позже, чем собирались. Она кричала на меня у машины держа дочь на руках, обвиняя меня в том, что из за меня у ребенка срывается график сна, из за чего она будет плакать. Прохожие оборачивались. Дочь уже плакала. Так на меня никто никогда не кричал. Она говорила со мной даже не как с подчиненным.
Почему-то я не ушел оттуда, а сел в машину с ними и два с половиной часа ехал молча пока она первые полчаса оскорбляла меня, а потом пока еще два часа мы искали дом друзей. Дочь плакала. Я делал все это ради нее, на автомате, – чтобы ребенок подышал свежим воздухом.
Когда мы наконец приехали, продолжать быть с ней рядом было невозможно. Но почему-то я считал, что в присутствии хозяев должен играть роль счастливого мужа/любовника. У меня заболело сердце. Я конечно знал, что у нее такой характер, но сделать мне так больно… Хотя, наверное, я сделал все это намного больнее для себя, чем оно могло быть.
Спали мы в одной кровати, но я спал максимально далеко от нее. Дотронуться до женщины, которой я повелевал своим касанием теперь было бы для меня немыслимым.
Утром было еще тяжелее. В какой-то момент стало невыносимо. Мне было нечем дышать. Мы оба оказались на кухне. Она подошла ко мне сзади, по-мужски, обняла меня и сказала: Давай оставим это позади. Есть же столько прекрасного, общего у нас. Я согласился, но не сразу. Я не мог так быстро перестроиться и сделать вид, что ничего не было. Видимо, она ожидала мгновенной реакции, как с подчиненными. Ничего не изменилось.
Обратно мы ехали под постоянный плач дочери, свинцовые обвинения и исполняемую детским хором Old McDonald Had a Farm. Я довез их до дома с волнистыми зеркалами и ушел из него навсегда.
* * *
К счастью, наши изначальные планы официально обвинить меня в угрозах и насилии ни к чему не привели. Она не отвечала на мои письма, сообщения, подарки. Я переживал насчет ее статуса, но для нее важнее было меня забыть. Тогда я, с трудом, но забыл ее сам.
Несколько месяцев спустя, теплым майским днем, она заявилась ко мне на работу, вычурно одетая, с летучей гривой и в растрепанных чувствах, вдруг требуя тем-же стальным тоном, чтобы я пошел с ней на собеседование в иммиграционную службу. Но для меня все это было позади. Не полностью, но позади. У нее дергался глаз, она ненавидяще смотрела на меня, потом обругала матом, вспорхнула и билась, как пшенично-ржаная моль, о стеклянные двери кафе. Я выступил вперед, провернул ручку и выпустил ее на волю. Статус она со временем получила.
Позже я нашел начало стишка, который я написал к рождению ее дочери:
Humanity has trafficked in the concept of money since the days when establishing the relative value of five sheep’s bladders of undiluted wine and thirteen slightly stale loaves of spelt-flour bread became too much of a crapshoot. At some point, metal, salt, cattle or pretty shells became the universal indicator of worth. In those very times of yore, the value a family derived from its daughters was in their virginity, which meant marriageability and a dowry. The actual formula was Marriageability = Brains + (Beauty x Age)Virginity. Virginity was an assumed asset, brains – a potential liability. Beauty and age mattered, but a scary old maid (by definition, and in fact, a virgin) was worth more to our forefathers than a hot-to-trot young widow.
These days, it is harder and harder to find virgins. The age at which virginity is lost is more or less a constant through the ages, but holy matrimony now happens later and later in life. Society squints and scowls at virginity; beauty is the ultimate prize. Virginity is worth just about as much as brains once were – not much – and what is not in demand, quickly withers. At the same time, today’s societies are suffering through a global economic decline, which, some say, is due to the fact that money is virtual, no longer backed by anything tangible, instead created at will in electronic form, as zeroes on a flickering screen, by private corporations unconcerned with the public good.
And so, an idea is born.
Speaking in market terms, the value of virginity has fallen to historic lows, and is due for a rebound. Investing in virginity would not only right today’s lax moral standards, but could also shore up the economy. After all, virginity is a tangible, verifiable good, and a virtue to boot. And so, in conjunction with her debutante’s ball, quinceañera or sweet sixteen, a virgin girl files for an Initial Public Offering, with shares in her undeflowered state then traded on the secondary market, perhaps the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Research analysts at major brokerages cover her the way they currently cover companies in the manufacturing, high-tech or healthcare sectors, reporting on fundamentals, such as personal hygiene, preference for strenuous exercise, and dating activity. Grave hazards to share value, such as sleepovers at the boyfriend’s house or visits to hymen-replacing surgeons, are monitored, duly reported and included in 10K reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her family holds a controlling block of shares in their daughter’s virtue, deriving clear value as well as intangibles, such as reputational benefits and lower health & life insurance premiums. A pre-planned exit strategy covers the entrance into her life of a man meant to introduce her to the joys of womanhood.
In time, the dollar could become backed by the combined virtue of the daughters of America, with the euro, pound, and other currencies following suit. (Thanks to the virtualization and globalization of today’s markets, some godless society entirely lacking in morals could tether the value of its currency to, say, the weighted-average virginity indicator of a simple and pious community living in the woods – perhaps the Amish – radically increasing the purchasing power of the money its sin-mired citizens surely use to perpetrate acts of unspeakable perversion at every turn.) In short, truth and virtue would be popular and profitable, and purity and innocence would once again rule all of Creation.
Let the virgins of the world unite for a stronger currency and a better tomorrow!
1. And when Death itself approaches our bed on cat’s paws and, uttering “ahem”, starts to strip from us our priceless and, up to this point, dear life, there will be one emotion we will likely most regret losing in the process.
2. Of all the marvelous things and feelings that nature, in its infinite generosity, has showered upon us, our most piteous parting will, I think, probably be with love.
And to use the language of poetic analogy, as it departs from this world, our extracted soul will start to flail and groan, begging to go back, embarrassing itself, and saying that it hadn’t yet seen everything there is to see and that it would still like to see something else.
But that’s nonsense. It’s seen everything. And these are nothing but empty excuses, pointing rather to the highfalutedness of our feelings and aspirations than to anything else.
3. Of course, besides all of that there are all kinds of exceptional and worthy happenings and sensations that we will sigh after plaintively.
We will, no doubt, be sorry never to hear the music of marching bands and symphony orchestras, never to, say, go on a cruise aboard a ship or gather sweet-smelling lilies-of-the-valley in the forest. We will be most sad to leave our wonderful job, and sad not to lie on the seashore with the object of relaxing.
Yes, these are all wonderful things, and we will also be sorry to part with all of them, of course. And maybe we’ll even shed a tear. But it is love that will beget a special and most bitter bout of tears from us. And when we part with this emotion, the majesty of the entire world before us will probably be extinguished, and it will seem to us empty, cold and of little interest.
As one poet said:
Love gives color to life,
Love is the charm of nature,
There exists an inner conviction
That all that replaces love is worthless.
So you see, the French poet De Miusse pronounced everything worthless compared with this emotion. But, of course, he was somewhat mistaken. Went a bit too far out on that limb, he did.
4. Besides, we would do well to remember that these lines were uttered by a Frenchman. That is, someone by nature very sensitive and, excuse the thought, probably a womanizer, who, under the effect of extraordinary emotion could really let some such nonsense fly.
These Frenchmen over there in Paris (much as we’ve been told) they come out in the evening onto the boulevards, and except for all kinds of cuties that they call chickies, from the get-go they see positively nothing else. That’s how much they appreciate female grace and beauty!…
So we have reason to dampen the uncommon fire of these poetic lines a bit.
5. But have a look at a Russian poet. The Russian poet stays on par with the fiery Gallic brain. And more still. We find not just love, but even infatuation in these surprising verses:
O, infatuation! How much stricter than fate is your mettle,
Greater even than ancient commandments…
Sweeter still than the call of the bugle to battle.
Which allows us to conclude that this great poet of ours thought this emotion something extraordinarily lofty, as something or other of a magnitude not to be equaled even by the text of the criminal code, nor by the teachings of father or, you know, mother. In short, nothing, says he, had the same impact on him as this emotion did. The poet is even hinting at something or other here about being drafted into the army – says that he couldn’t care less for that. Looks like the poet’s probably got something he’s not saying.
Mentioned the bugle’s call to battle and all of a sudden got all mysterious on us. I bet he dodged the draft himself in his day. That’s probably why he’s getting all allegorical.
Prose, in this respect, is much easier to deal with. You can’t have nebulousness like that in prose. Everything’s clear. But, as you can see, even poetry can be explained.
6. No less impressive are another Russian poet’s verses.
Actually, this poet once had his house burn down, the house where he was born and spent his best childhood days. And it’s a curious thing what this poet obtained for himself as comfort after the fire.
He tells it like this. He describes it in a poem. This is what he writes:
It seemed that all of childhood’s joys
Had vanished in the burning house,
And death to me was welcome then,
And I bent down to the water,
But then, a woman in a boat
The moon’s reflection mirrored, gliding,
And if she should have the desire
And if the moon allows it too,
I’ll build myself a new abode
In that unknown heart of hers.
Et cetera, something to that effect.
7. That is, in other words, liberally translating lofty verse into egalitarian prose, we can partly understand how this guy, mad with grief, wanted to throw himself into the water, but at this critical moment he saw a pretty woman taking a boat ride. And so he all of a sudden fell in love with her at first sight, and this love eclipsed, so to speak, his horrible suffering and even distracted him from the toils of locating a new place to live. Especially since, judging by the poem, the poet seems to just want to move in with this lady. Or maybe he wants to build an addition onto her house if she, as he nebulously puts it, should have the desire, and if the moon and management allow it.
Well, in terms of the moon, the poet threw her in for a sort of a greater poetic impact. I mean, the moon, really, has little to do with all of this. As far as building management goes, it might very well turn him down, even if the lady in the boat has the desire, since these two lovebirds aren’t officially married, and, who knows, maybe there’s something impermissibly fishy going on here.
8. I mean, I don’t know, maybe this coarse mind of a soldier, worked over with heavy artillery in two wars, doesn’t apprehend the intricate and delicate poetic pattern of verse and feeling. But we do venture to think approximately in that vein, based on a certain knowledge of life and an understanding of the real needs of people whose lives don’t always follow the canons of florid poetry.
So basically, even here the poet speaks of love as the greatest of emotions, which, assuming a certain carefree streak, may substitute for even the most basic things, even including living arrangements. But we’ll let the poet sort out these kinds of opinions with his conscience.
But this, of course, is not the view of only three fiery poets.
For all the others have sung words of love even more ridiculous and shameless than these, while strumming carelessly, so to speak, the strings of even the most dilapidated lyres.
9. Something or other out of Apukhtin comes to me now:
My heart leapt up, in love again,
Shoop, shoobe-doop, doop-doop…
All that the soul holds holy and dear…
And this was no boy of eighteen writing. A serious man of about forty-eight wrote this; very extremely fat and unhappy in his personal life. Nevertheless, as you can see, he too thinks that all is dead and lifeless until love comes into one’s heart.
I’m remembering more crazy verses:
What is love? What is love? Love! Oh, what is your name?
Love is fire in the blood; it is blood in the flame…
Something, something; pretty damn… I don’t know…
It is paradise lost, yet regained again.
Death trumps life, yet love rules over mortal domain.
10. I’d say even French poetry falls a bit flat here – they don’t have that, you know, crazy energy, like we see in these lines. And this was a Russian poetess. She lived in the beginning of this century and was, by all accounts, pretty good-looking. With a developed poetic temperament, to be sure. That lady was probably shaking all over when she was composing this poem. Which is really more of a biographical detail than a sample of poetry… The poor husband had it rough enough, I bet… She must have been real fickle. Hardly did anything. Probably spent the whole day laying around in bed without even washing that mug of hers. And reading her little poems aloud all the time. And her idiot-husband sitting there; “Oh,” he exclaims, “this is amazing, honeybunny, it’s genius!” And she says, “Really?”…
The idiots! And then they both up and died. She got tuberculosis, I think, and he must have gotten infected with something too.
11. Here’s where all these skeptics, academics and pedants, whose hearts have iced over in their lonely wanderings through the polar regions of science, reading these lines of verse, will probably shrug and say that what we have here is the unwarranted view of certain excessively fiery hearts, promiscuous souls and a perverted worldview.
And they will be surprised that this emotion has been described in such views and such poems and such words, which they had not even known about, and could not even have thought that something like this had ever been said about it.
And maybe it really is surprising that this is so, and that we have this kind of poetry, but not long ago we happened upon this work of prose by a singer – Fyodor Ivanovich Shalyapin. So, in this book he admits with complete candor that everything he did in his life he did mainly for love and for a woman. These are the kinds of opinions of love that we hear from poetically minded people.
12. And as far as sober-minded and levelheaded people, as far as philosophers and all kinds of, you know, thinkers, whose minds have shed much light on life’s most mysterious and complicated aspects, as far as these people go, for the most part they didn’t say much about this emotion, but there were times, of course, when they looked its way, chuckled, and were even known to utter certain pithy quotes showcasing their life experience.
We can, if you so desire, give you one of the more melancholy quotes, which is by Schopenhauer, one of the gloomiest philosophers the world has known.
This gloomy philosopher, whose wife undoubtedly cheated on him at every turn, said this about love:
“Love is a blind will to live. It lures man with the illusion of individual happiness, making him the means to its ends.”
Of the more inane sayings of old, there’s:
“Love is a sort of harmony of celestial sounds.”
Of the more poetic:
“Never hit a woman, not even with a flower.”
Of the more sober ones, but tending towards idealism:
“Love springs from those advantages, which the loving one values all the more the less he himself commands them.”
Plato, a known philosopher, even proposed this theorem:
“The essence of love is the polar difference between possibly even greater contradictions.”
As an example of a truer aphorism, we offer the words of our glorious poet and philosopher, Pushkin:
She fell in love, in time and season;
A seed that falls into the ground
By springtime’s fire is thus unbound.
The myriad pangs of gentle passion
Had long assailed her virgin breast –
Her heart would welcome any guest.
14. But that is the philosophy and mechanics of love, in a manner of speaking.
As far as more rigorous research in this field, we really don’t know much about these things. And maybe there’s no need to know, even. Because consciousness spoils and clouds over almost everything it touches.
Dostoevsky really had it right: “Too much consciousness and even any kind of consciousness at all is an illness.” Another poet said: “Woe from wit.” And we do believe these words were far from having been said by chance. Whether it springs from idiosyncrasy – or most probably there is a certain exact formula; something from the uninvestigated realm of electricity – the truth is we know nothing and positively do not want to know anything about the origins of love.
And so, realizing that we know little about love, but at the same time, recognizing that this tender emotion encompasses something significant and even grand, it is with a feeling of special awe and with our heart aflutter that we take into our hands the weighty tomes of history.
We cannot wait to see the worthy role that this emotion played in the lives of nations. We desire to witness larger-than-life things or the, you know, magnificent deeds of certain persons that happened on account of love. And therefore, to indulge the soul, we make ourselves more comfortable in our armchair and, lighting an aromatic cigar, we begin to turn the yellowed pages of history with a sure hand.
And this is what we see.
15. First, all we ever get are all sorts of goddam petty love stories and small, stupid, everyday-life stuff – all kinds of marriages, proposals and weddings, arranged by businesslike and sober minds.
Here we see some kind of duke… Something or other… He is marrying the king’s daughter with hopes for the throne.
Here, another VIP, desiring to snag a number of cities to append to his lands, also proposes to some fit-prone princess…
The Russian Grand Dukes… Something, something… From the era of the Tartar yoke… “They endeavour to outwit one another (according to one historian) in order to marry the Hun’s daughters, with the aim of obtaining his favour…”
Here’s another one, some – so help me – Khylperykh I… King of the Francs… Marries the daughter of the King of Spain… literally, we read, “with the aim of scoring a win over his enemy, Prince Ziegbert.”
16. And the thing is, historians write about all these dealings, cloaked with love but lined with commerce, without any kind of – how to put it – exhilaration, but in a languid, bureaucratic tone, as if these things were completely unimportant and all-too-familiar. The historians don’t even add any personal comments, nothing like: “Tut-tut!” or “That’s a heck of duke for ya!” or “Now, that’s not nice!” or even “Look, another shameless bastard!”
Nope, we hear no exclamations of this sort from the impartial historians. Although, if you think about it, once you start exclaiming, there wouldn’t be enough exclamations to go around, because in the course of world history we seem to see a sea of similar affairs.
But we probably won’t be making a list of these commercial dealings. We would like to touch on more interesting matters. Although, to be honest, many, many amazing happenings and stories worthy of the modern reader’s attention are known in this department.
17. For instance, here is a very fun fact. Its, shall we say, characteristic plot is what appealed to us. It’s very typical, this fact is. It’s taken from old times in Russia. We’re talking the time of Ivan the Terrible.
This German duke, called Golschtinski, arrives in Russia.
We have no idea what he was doing in that Germany of his, but historians have discovered that he came to Russia with the purpose of furthering his political ends by means of marrying Ivan IV’s cousin’s daughter.
And so he arrives. All gussied up, probably. Wearing some sort of silk pantaloons. Bows. Ribbons. A rapier on the hip. Gotta be a real lanky guy, with a ruddy mug and a huge red moustache. Probably a drinker, a screamer, and a pawer.
So he comes to Russia, and since everything has already been arranged by letter, the wedding day is set.
18. Everybody’s running around, it’s this huge hassle. Mother of the bride’s everywhere at once. Chickens being slaughtered. The bride being led to the banya. The groom’s sitting with Dad. Putting the vodka away. Probably lying up a storm. You know, like, “let me tell ye – in Germany, where I come from, …” You know, like, “we’re Dukes!” and all that.
And suddenly something really sad happens. The bride, alas, dies unexpectedly. She returns from the banya, is taken with a terrible cold, the poor lass, and dies within the space of three days.
The groom, stricken with unutterable woe, of course, wants to go back to Germany. And here he is, all falling apart, saying his good-byes to the parents, when all of a sudden he hears:
“O, Mister Duke! Don’t go yet. As your luck would have it, we’ve got another young lady for you. True, she is a bit older than the first, and she’s not as nice to look at, but maybe she’ll do after all. You came all this way from Germany – it would be a shame to return empty-handed.
So the duke says:
“Of course she’ll do. Why didn’t you tell me before? No question about it. I mean – come on! Where is she? Lemme have a gander.”
All in all, the mourning aside, they were soon wed.
19. But, who the hell knows, maybe such facts and acts occurred only among kings and happened only to dukes and such?
Maybe nowhere but the palaces of kings did this cold pragmatism and marriage without any kind of love thrive, on account of, you know, things like diplomatic necessities, chronic shortages of funds or all kinds of unwholesome conditions of kingly life.
Maybe when it comes to mere mortals, it’s just the other way around – maybe the course of love ran naturally, bringing joy and happiness to the hearts of everyone.
It strikes us that certain categories of mere mortals were kind of not even interested in love. I mean it’s common knowledge that the landed and the affluent married off their loyal serfs in any way it struck them to do it.
Not long ago, we had occasion to read that Russian landowners married their serfs in this manner: they lined them up according to height and married them to whoever matched – tall men with tall women, short little ones with little short ones. And then this list of pairs was sent to the priest to be enacted. As you can see, love wasn’t really the prime consideration here.
And as far as different sorts of, excuse my French, government officials, profiteers, carpetbaggers and so forth, it doesn’t seem like the dear sirs understood much about love either. To them, getting married was akin to striking a deal. And the way they had it set up was that without a dowry no one would even let you in the door.
20. And even if we aim for a higher plane and take, for example, a smattering of counts, barons and men of commerce, it turns out that even with all the leisure in their lives, they still didn’t have much of an idea of the true color of love.
Here’s a wonderful little short story of a historical nature, which paints in vivid detail how it worked back then.
In the France of Louis XV (1720 we’re talking about), this one profiteer accumulated a huge fortune through all kinds of shady dealings. He achieved everything. And had it all. But on top of that, he got the overwhelming urge to associate himself with the oldest aristocratic dynasty in all of France. He had a bout of fantasizing, this guy, and knowing no bounds on account of his wealth, decided to have his daughter marry an impoverished marquis by the famous name of d’Ouau.
The daughter was actually just three years old at the time. The marquis was actually about thirty. And even though the dowry was outrageously huge, the impoverished marquis had no intention whatsoever of waiting for twelve years.
Shrugging in the most elegant Gallic fashion and sending sparks around the room with his gleaming lorgnette, he probably said to the profiteering dad in a hoarse voice:
“Monsieur, although nothing would please me more than to become your son-in-law, the bride you offer me is much too young. Let her grow up a bit, and then we’ll see. There’s a chance I will marry her.”
21. But the status-conscious dad desired to become the marquis’s relation immediately. This would allow him to touch the highest rungs of aristocracy, so to speak. And so he struck this agreement with the marquis. The latter is paid a huge monthly salary until the daughter is of legal age. After twelve years, the marquis has to marry her. And the engagement takes place now.
For nine full years, the marquis received the exact amount of his salary and denied himself none of life’s pleasures. And then, the little twelve-year-old bride fell ill with diphtheria and died.
We can just imagine how the profiteering daddy howled and cried. First of all, what a pity! – such a young girl, and then, just think of all that money gone down the drain! And, of course, it would be foolish to expect the esteemed marquis to return even a measly part of it. That marquis guy was probably telling the woestruck dad, while rubbing his hands together, “Well, you understand, I’m sure, how it is about the money. The girl croaked – I’m in luck.”
22. But that’s nothing. Even more curious things have been known to happen in the love department. It is, for example, very strange to read about all these men – all kinds of pretty boys, barons, brave knights, cavalry officers, men of commerce, landlords, and czars – getting married without laying their eyes on their brides. And this was a pretty common occurrence. And we, the modern reader, do find it somewhat baffling. The only thing they’d ask was what the family does, and the finances and such, and how the bride is doing property-wise, what post daddy holds or what lands he rules, and that’s it. Well, maybe some of the grooms who weren’t big on taking risks asked what, approximately, their second half looks like – you know, whether she’s got a hump or not, things like that – and that’s it.
Then they said ‘yes’ and were married in the dark, so to speak, eyes closed, sight unseen. The bride they would see at the very last moment.
No, today, we can’t even imagine how this would have gone off in these parts. We’d probably have a whole lotta wailing, neurotic yelling, second thoughts, commotion, black eyes and broken noses and the devil knows what else. But over there, they somehow managed without that.
23. But not without the occasional trouble or outrage.
For example, we know of two world-class scandals.
The first is famous to the point that even in theatres it is played out as a grotesque tragedy and royal conflict.
Philip II of Spain, a geezer of about sixty, had a mind to marry off his son and heir, the famous Don Carlos. For his wife he chose the French princess Isabelle, which was advantageous and necessary, as dictated by high politics. But he had never seen the princess. All he knew was that she’s real young and antsin’ to get married, but he had no idea what she looked like.
But when he saw her after the engagement, he fell in love and married her himself, to the great chagrin of his son, who was also partial to the charms of his beautiful bride. This, as we know, caused the conflict between father and son.
24. The second scandal took place in Persia. The Persian king Ambyses (son of the famous Cyrus) proposed to the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis II (529 BC). Ambyses did this without having seen the bride. Travel and transportation in those times was a pretty hefty proposition, and the trip to Egypt would have taken months.
Rumor had it, though, that the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter is alone among women in her beauty and attractiveness.
And so, the mighty Persian king, whose father had conquered practically the entire world, decided to propose to the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh by mail.
The pharaoh, who harbored a rare affection for his only daughter, had no desire to send her off to undiscovered countries. At the same time, he feared to offend the Master of the Universe with his refusal. And so, he chose the most beautiful of his female slaves and sent her to Persia in place of his daughter. What’s more, her sent her as his daughter, supplying her with the appropriate information for that purpose.
History relates to us that Ambyses, having married the woman, truly loved her, but when the artifice was accidentally discovered, he mercilessly put her to death and, offended to his very heart, set out to make war on Egypt.
This was probably one of the grandest love dramas ever, which shows how love can spring, and also how it can end.
25. Oh, how vividly we can see in our mind’s eye the dramatic scene and the tragic moment when the lie was revealed in its entirety.
They’re sitting there in an embrace on a Persian ottoman.
On this really low-slung bench; and you can just imagine all these eastern sweetmeats and things to drink they have there – all kinds of Turkish delight and honey-cakes and so on. This really fat Persian dude with a huge fan in his hands is chasing the flies away from these sweets.
And Ambyses, the King of Persia, having taken a glass of, you know, sherry or brandy or whatever, looks upon his beautiful wife with an enthralled gaze, whispering all kinds of sweet little nothings in her ear, like, “My pretty little Egyptian mummy, you! How was your life in Egypt? Your daddy, the Pharaoh, must have spoiled you rotten. And how could he not, when you’re so sweet? My dear princess, I fell in love with you at the very first sight for your regal bearing, and so on.”
26. Now, it’s not clear whether at this point she put too much faith in her womanly charms, or God knows what was happening in her little woman’s heart, but she laughs a sparkling laugh and says that the funny thing is that the pharaoh’s daughter has got her own life in Egypt, while Ambyses, the King of Persia, he’s just gaga over her, the one next to him, who’s got nothing to do with the pharaoh’s daughter. He’s fallen in love with a simple girl of slave stock. This is what love can do with a man’s heart.
It is hard not to shudder when imagining what happened next.
He probably started screaming in an unnatural voice. Jumped up from the sofa in just his underpants. One of his slippers slipped off. Lips went white. Hands are shaking. Knees are buckling.
“What?!” he screamed in Persian. “What did you just say?! Ministers! Arrest the impostress!”
The ministers come running.
“Oh! Oh! What’s happened? Your majesty, please calm yourself! … See, you have lost a slipper, and it is most unbecoming of a king to be in just one slipper.”
But, of course, it isn’t so easy to calm oneself, because an enormous blow has been dealt to the ego.
27. And so, in the evening, after the poor Egyptian girl had her head roundly cut off, Ambyses is probably having an extended council with his ministers.
Nervous, waving his hands, he walks the room in fits and starts.
“I can’t believe what a bastard that Egyptian pharaoh is!” he exclaims indignantly.
The ministers sigh respectfully, shake their heads and shrug, exchanging glances full of malevolence.
“And what am supposed to do now, huh? After being slapped in the face like that? Go to war with this punk?”
“That’s an idea, your majesty.”
“But he’s awfully far, the sonofabitch, … I mean, Egypt… That’s in Africa, right? That’s almost a year’s journey … Probably need camels to get there…”
“That’s all right, your majesty … The armies will make it.”
“I showed her love,” says Ambyses, working himself up again. “I received her like an Egyptian princess, fell madly in love with her, and it turns out she was something else … How can this be, I ask you? What am I, a dog, that I cannot have his daughter? Where does he get off sending me crap on the sly, huh? … Huh!?!”
28. The foreign minister, working hard not to burst laughing out loud, says:
“The real problem, your majesty, is the international PR, … the scandal….”
“That’s exactly right! …. That’s what I mean – the scandal. What to do, what to do?!”
“The real problem, your majesty, is that this will go down in the annals of history, that’s the worst part of it … I mean, Persia, … King Ambyses, … Got slipped a slave girl…”
“Enough, you sonofabitch! Enough already! Call up the armies! Set out at once! Egypt must be conquered and erased off the face of the frigging Earth!”
To make a long story short, Ambyses led the armies himself and in short order conquered Egypt. But, by that time, the sad and senile pharaoh Amasis had died. His nephew Psammetichus, seeing he was in for no good, took his own life. As far as the daughter, who started the whole mess – unfortunately, history gives us no clues about her fate.
One history professor I know, who teaches at university, told me that Ambyses sent the Egyptian girl to one of his minister’s harems. But we can’t vouch for the truth of that. Although it is possible, of course. Anyway, the love they had vanished like smoke. Which shows plenty well what a pound of the stuff is worth.
29. So what do we have here? Seems like things ain’t so great for love, are they? Where is the notorious love glorified by poets and singers? Where is this emotion, sung of in wondrous poems?
Could it be that these know-nothing poets, rhyme slappers, and lovers of all kinds of grace and beauty have allowed such a shocking exaggeration to take place? Because we don’t really see any of these impressive sufferings while reading our history.
I mean, sure, we do see a thing here and there between the pages. But there’s too little, really. We want an unforgettable jewel of a story shining from every page. But all we get is some pathetic little love story once every hundred years.
We barely scraped up a few of these romantic narratives here. And to do that we had to diligently read history in its entirety, starting with all kinds of, pardon me, Chaldaeans and Ethiopians, and the creation of the world, and all the way up to our times.
And all we’ve got is what you’re gonna see next. Here, for instance, is a pretty powerful love, as a result of which this one daughter ran her dad over with a chariot.
Here’s how it happened.
30. Servius Tulius, the Roman caesar, had a daughter. And the daughter had a husband, this pretty disreputable guy. But the daughter loved him exceptionally nevertheless.
And so this sneak contrived a scheme to depose this daughter’s noble father – Servius Tulius, that is. Now, to be honest, Servius Tulius was kinda old, and he engaged in all kinds of losing wars with – wouldn’t you know it – some kind of Etruscans. Still, it wasn’t right to depose him. And there certainly was no need to kill him. That was just downright messed up.
Yet this dynamic son-in-law consulted the old man’s daughter and decided to kill her daddy after all. And she agreed, out of love for this bloodsucker.
And so the wheeling-and-dealing son-in-law hires a murderer and has the noble old man mercilessly stabbed to death in the middle of the forum.
He falls without even uttering a sound. And the people say: “Who will be the emperor now, we ask?”
And instead of weeping inconsolably and flinging herself upon the body of her dead dad, this daughter of a murdered father springs into a chariot, and wishing to greet her husband, the new emperor, with a joyous cry she runs the body of her freshly killed father the hell over.
A powerful sight, although utterly disgusting to some extent. And a substantial love this caesar’s daughter exhibits. I mean, you gotta really love someone to run the old man over at a moment like this.
There she is, standing up in the chariot. Whooping. Hair waving about. A grimace contorts her face.
“Hail!” she screams to the new emperor, and rides toward him over whatever’s in the way.
People in the crowd are yelling:
“Hey, looks like this shameless wench had the gall to ride over her own father.”
But this was love, no matter what you say. Mixed in with a little bit of a desire to rule herself. I mean – it’s really hard to say.
31. But here’s a love that was even stronger, which happened to this one pretty famous historical lady in her sunset years.
Catherine II, the Russian Empress, as she was growing old, (being, oh, fifty-eight years of age or so,) lost her wits over this one young, valiant pretty boy – Plato Zuboff. He was twenty-one, and he really was quite good-looking. Although his brother Valerian was even more handsome. The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg has both of their portraits, and it’s true: the brother was amazingly handsome.
But the old hag saw the brother later on, which is why in the meantime, not knowing what’s up, she immediately fell in love with Plato. When she saw Valerian, she caught her breath and said: “Hmmm. Coulda had me that young man. But since I’ve already fallen in love with Plato, I’ll just stick to what I’ve got.”
But Plato, seeing the huge effect Valerian had on the hag, sent that little brother of his off to war, where the pretty boy had his leg ripped off by a cannonball.
And so the hag was all about Plato, showering him with all kinds of wonderful privileges.
It’d be fun to imagine how their little affair sprang up. The pretty boy was probably awful coy at first, and would just freeze up when the elderly dame would get pushy. I mean, anyone would freeze up. I mean, you got your Holy Empress, so to speak, The Monarch of All of Russia and so on, and here, all of a sudden – what the hell?! – these crude advances!
32. So let us imagine this affair.
“Embrace me, you fool!” the empress would entreat.
“Gee, I mean, I can’t, Your Majesty,” the minion would mutter. “Out of, you know, timidity and awe for your imperial title.”
“Oh, just forget about that. Come, call me Catherine Vasilievna (or whatever her full name was.)
And so, with a strained laugh, the kid would respectfully touch the empress’ shoulders, already touched by signs of age. But in time he grew accustomed to it and received much more in return for his love than was just.
At twenty-four the pretty boy was already commander-in-chief, the governor-general of the Novorossiysk region, and the head of the entire artillery. This not-exactly-young woman fell deeper and deeper in love with him with each passing year, and was running out of favors to lavish upon him.
She allowed him to see all secret dispatches and intelligence from abroad. All the ministers and generals had to go through him to get to Catherine.
The young man would receive ministers and courtiers while reclining on a couch, wrapped in a silk Bukhara robe. Wizened generals would tremble reverentially as they stood at full attention in front of the pretty boy.
Head over heels in love, the old empress entrusted him with all the state secrets. Her love literally blinded her.
33. At the same time, this boy’s understanding of life and politics was quite vague. We know, for example, of his plan for a new Russia.
This mind-boggling work proudly lists the following cities as capitals of the first order: St. Petersburg, Berlin, Astrakhan, Moscow and Constantinople. Among the second-tier cities we, for some reason, have Krakow, Taganrog and Danzig. This plan has the following words:
“The woman who rules such a vast empire must become like the sun, whose benevolent glance warms everything within reach of its rays.” All in all, this plan alone tells us to what extent the old dame didn’t care about affairs of state, and how world politics was absolutely nothing compared with her last love.
But this is rather the portrait of someone aging in all her sad beauty than of the happy properties of love.
Yet here is a story for you of a big love that happened in someone’s full bloom.
34. This is also a fairly famous tale, which has been enacted on many a stage. So we won’t dwell on it for too long. It’s, shall we say, about how a Roman consul, Marc Antony, fell in love with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Well, actually, let’s refresh this story in our minds, especially since the touching story is extremely unusual. An ambitious man, who had reached a position of – believe it or not – great power, falls in love with a woman and forsakes absolutely everything. He forsook even the conquering armies he was leading. And became permanently stuck in Egypt.
As gifts, he gave Cleopatra Roman lands – albeit lands he conquered – Armenia, Syria, Cilicia, and Phoenicia. And bestowed upon her the title of Queen of Kings. Having gotten wind of the military leader’s scandalous behavior, the Roman Senate hastily deprived Antony of the title of First Consul. But being lovestruck, Antony refused even to return to his homeland. And then, Rome declared war on Cleopatra. And everyone was in for a great fight.
Antony, together with Cleopatra, set out against the Roman army. As the Roman armies were nearing Alexandria, the Roman consul Octavian wrote Cleopatra a letter about how she may still save her life and throne if she sacrifices Antony.
35. Seeing that things weren’t going that great for her, Mrs. Queen decided to indeed sacrifice her fiery lover. And while Antony was battling Octavian, Cleopatra sent her lover a message via servants, saying that she had taken her life. She knew that Antony, besotted by her, would not be able to live with this sorrow. And wouldn’t you know it – upon learning of Cleopatra’s death, Antony ran himself through with a sword. Yet the wound wasn’t fatal. And learning that Cleopatra was alive, Antony ordered himself to be brought to her on a stretcher. And died in her arms, forgiving her for lying.
This amazing story really is about a pretty great love, which overshadowed absolutely everything else.
By the way, later on, Cleopatra also committed suicide.
The thing is that Octavian was going to send her to Rome as a trophy. She did try to also win this leader over with her flirting, but nothing came of it, and then, unwilling to live through the shame, she poisoned herself. And thirty of her servants poisoned themselves along with her.
And for some reason, we feel sorry for this beauty, to whom Octavian said: “You can quit your trickery, queen. I’m not gonna fall for that.” In the meantime, she was already forty, and she realized that the jig was up.
36. But here’s another great love that made one man forget even his revolutionary duty.
We’re talking about the famous Mme. Tallien.
During the French Revolution, Tallien, the Secretary General of the Revolutionary Council, was sent by Robespierre to Bordeaux in order to arrest the aristocrats who fled there.
And in a jail he met Teresa de Fontenay, a young woman who had been arrested. He fell in love with her and let her out of jail.
When Robespierre found out that Tallien let her out, he ordered that she be arrested again.
And then, joining forces with Danton’s supporters, Tallien waged a battle against Robespierre so fierce, that in a short time he managed to topple him. There’s no doubt that his love for Theresa Fontenay was one of the motives for this battle. Tallien later married her, but soon she left him to marry some grand duke.
But this isn’t all history tells us.
Apart from this, there were these small and at first sight unnotable events, but still, these events literally like the sun shone through the impenetrable forest. This indeed was great love.
37. For example, the Decembrists’s wives, these glorious society women, left it all and voluntarily, although no one had exiled them, went to Siberia with their husbands.
The ill Radischev was to be exiled. His wife had died not long before that. And his wife’s sister went along with him to live in a Siberian settlement.
The son of a wealthy landowner, the illustrious horse-guardsman Ivashov fell in love with Camilla, the governess who worked in his household. His parents, of course, refused to allow him to marry her. But a year later, when, as a Decembrist, Ivashov was sentenced to twenty years of exile in Siberia, the young governess voluntarily followed him.
The poet Robert Browning loved his wife dearly. When she died, the inconsolably grieving Browning put the most valuable thing he had into the coffin; it was a notebook with his newly written sonnets.
Although later on, when the poet fell in love again, he retrieved that notebook, but that’s not that important.
In 1796, in the midst of battle, Napoleon wrote to Josephine: “When I am far from you, the world is a desert where I am abandoned and alone. You are the only thought in my entire life.”
Lassale wrote to Helen Denniges: ”I have huge powers and I will multiply them a thousandfold in order to have you. There is no one in the world who is able to tear me away from you. I suffer more than Prometheus on the cliff.”
38. In love with his wife, Chernyshevsky wrote to Nekrasov: “Not for problems on a global scale do people drown or shoot themselves or turn into alcoholics – I experienced this and I know that the poetry of the heart carries as much weight as the poetry of ideas”.
The city of Weinsberg was besieged by the enemy. The victors let women leave the city before pillaging it. They also allowed each woman to take with her the one thing she considered most precious. And a few women carried their valiant husbands out of the city.
Of course, this last one sounds like a legend. Once every while, history is fond of inventing something touchy-feely; for the sake of moral balance, so to speak.
39. Here’s an interesting touchy-feely story.
Some knight was setting out on a campaign and entrusted his wife to his friend. The friend fell in love with the wife. The wife fell in love with him. But the oath of chastity is, of course, inviolable. And so, to preserve and test this chastity, they sleep in one bed, with a double-edged sword between them.
I mean, maybe they did put the sword between them, and maybe they really did sleep in the same bed – we’re not contesting the actual historical fact. But as far as everything else, we beg to doubt it.
And so, on this petty sentimental note, we end our historical short stories.
This is what history tells us about love.
Basically, it tells us very little about this emotion. You know, like, yeah, seems that there is this emotion. Seems that history did run into it at some point. Seems that there even were certain kinds of historical events and things that happened on account of it. And certain kinds of business done and crimes committed.
But it’s not as if it was something terribly huge, not really like what the poets sang about in their tenor voices – history barely knows anything like that. On the contrary, this emotion has pretty much been saddled by commercial souls. And it poses no threat to the quiet march of history.
40. No, this emotion hasn’t stood in the way of people traveling down the road which they are honestly and patiently treading.
And history can monotonously intone to us about what was and about how many “golde coins” a certain groom received for such and such a feeling.
Now, it’s true that we were talking about centuries past here. And maybe something’s changed?
Unfortunately, we have not been abroad, and on that account cannot fully satisfy your completely legitimate curiosity.
But we are of the opinion that it is unlikely that any kind of big changes have happened there.
There’s probably (so we think) some marquise with his big-sounding name, who is fiancé to a tiny three-year-old girl. And the daddy makes monthly salary payments.
And some aging dame, having lost sight of everything else, probably keeps some dancer Zuboff at her side, showering him with her largesse. Everything (we assume) is going the way it did before.
And as for how it is in our parts, we’ve had considerable changes happen.
41. And certain lamentable things having to do with love have actually started to disappear here bit by bit. For example, the financial calculations have practically stopped. And the monetary arrangements have gotten easier and much fewer in number. And really, all in all, all of it has somehow cleared up, and become less troublesome, and not as burdensome.
So, let us look at what kinds of negative things we might have in the love department. And, in a manner of speaking, let’s sweep up what we can with the steel broom of satire.
And so, on to the love stories from our lives.
So once this one time I’m walking down the street and suddenly I notice that women aren’t looking at me.
Used to be – I’d come out looking like, you know, some kind of stallion, and I’m getting these looks, air kisses, benevolent smiles, giggles and facial contortions.
And suddenly, there’s nothing. Nothing of the sort!
That is a pity, I think to myself. I mean, after all, a woman plays a certain role in one’s personal life.
This one bourgeois economist, or I think he was a chemist, had this original idea that not only in terms of personal life, but whatever we do, we do for women. That means, then, that all the battles, the glory, wealth, honors, trading up apartment-wise, and buying big-ticket clothing items like overcoats, and so on and the like – all of this is done for women.
Well, of course he did go overboard there, the bastard – lied an entire sackful he did, to please bourgeois society – but as far as personal life, I agree with all of that completely.
It’s true that a woman plays a bit of a role in our personal lives.
Say you go to see a movie together. Then it’s not such a shame if it turns out to be bad. You can, you know, squeeze her little hand, say a couple of nonsensical things, and it all makes up for modern art and the scant personal life.
So, imagine how I feel when once this one time I see that women aren’t looking at me!
What the hell is that? I think. Why aren’t these dames looking my way? What’s the reason? What do they need that I don’t have?
So, I get home and throw myself at the mirror. I see that there’s this disheveled mug in it. And a kind of a deathly look. And there’s no color flashing about in the cheeks.
“Right, now I understand!” I say to myself. “I have to bring the food intake up a notch. Gotta fill my colorless form up with blood.”
And so I rush to buy all kinds of food.
I buy butter and sausage. I buy cocoa and so on.
All of this is eaten, drunk and devoured basically non-stop. And in a short time I again look indecently fresh and vitalized.
And looking like this, I glide the streets. Yet I notice that women still aren’t looking at me.
“Oh,” I say to myself, “have I, perhaps, acquired a rotten gait? Maybe I’m lacking in acrobatics and exercise, the hanging on rings and the jumping about? Maybe I have a shortage of large muscles that women have a habit of admiring?”
So then I buy a hanging trapeze. I buy rings and weights and some kind of special contraption.
I’m spinning like a sonofabitch on all these rings and apparatuses. Mornings I use the contraption. I chop the neighbors’ firewood for free.
Finally, I sign up at a sports club. I row boats and boaties. I swim outside into the month of November. And I actually almost drown once while I’m at it. I get the bright idea to dive in a deep spot and, not reaching the bottom, start swallowing water ‘cause I can’t really swim.
I waste half-a-year on all this business. I put my life in danger. Twice I crack my head when I fall off the trapeze.
I bravely bear all of this, and one fine day, tanned and strong, like a spring I come out into the street to meet with the long-forgotten, approving smile of a woman.
But again I fail to find it.
Then I begin to sleep with the window open. The fresh air infiltrates my lungs. My cheeks are flush with color. My mug turns rose-colored and red. And, for some reason, takes on a shade of purple.
Once, I take my purple mug to the theatre. And in the theatre, like an idiot, I stalk the female population, inciting sharp criticism and crude hints from the men, and even pushing and shoving in the chest.
And in the end, I see two or three pathetic smiles, with which I am hardly satisfied.
Right there in the theatre I approach a large mirror and lovingly look at my powerful figure and chest, which, with a flexing, now yields seventy-five centimeters in circumference.
I bend my arms, straighten my noble back, and position my legs this way and that.
And am, frankly, amazed by the fickleness and the nose-turning on the part of the women, who are either spoiled silly, or the devil knows what it is they need.
I’m adoring myself in this large mirror and suddenly notice that my clothes are not that great. I’ll be honest – my clothes are poor, and even horrible. The ultra-short trousers with bubbling at the knees send me into a state of dismay and even shuddering.
But I am rendered practically dumbfounded when I look at my lower extremities, the description of which has no place in a work of literature.
“Oh, now I get it!” I say to myself. “This is what’s ruining my personal life – I dress badly.”
And depressed, on half-bent legs, I return home, promising myself to change the way I dress.
And so, I hurriedly construct a new wardrobe for myself. I have a blazer made according to the latest fashion, from a swath of purple drapery. And I buy myself a pair of trousers in the ‘Oxford’ style, made from two joined riding breeches. I walk around in this costume, as if in a hot air balloon, much aggrieved by such fashion.
I buy an overcoat at a flea market, and this overcoat has shoulders so wide that shoulders this wide simply don’t exist on our planet.
And one weekend, I come out onto Tverskoi Boulevard looking like this. I come out onto Tverskoi Boulevard and perform like a trained camel. I walk here and there, turn my shoulders and make dancing motions with my feet.
Women look at me askance, with a mixture of amazement and fear.
The men, they look less askance. Their comments are voiced; the crude and uncultured comments of people unable to comprehend the whole situation.
Here and there I hear them:
“Woah, get a load of the scarecrow! Man, look at the get-up on that bastard. That’s just a shame!” they say. “Guy’s got three miles of fabric on him.”
They pepper me with mockery and laugh at me.
I walk down the boulevard, as if through a formation, with very vague hopes of anything.
And suddenly, near the Pushkin monument, I notice a well-dressed lady looking at me ever so tenderly, and even slyly.
I smile in return and thrice round the Pushkin monument, making figures with my feet. After which I take a seat on the bench opposite hers.
This well-dressed lady with remnants of a faded beauty is looking at me. Her eyes lovingly glide along my nice figure and face, which expresses all the best there is in the world.
I cock my head, shrug, and mentally admire the bourgeois economist’s elegant philosophical theory of the value of women.
I wink at Pushkin, as if to say: “Here we go, Aleksandr Sergeyevich, the ice is broken.”
Again I look toward the lady, who, now, I see, practically follows my every motion with an unflinching stare.
And then, for some reason, I begin to fear these unblinking eyes. I’m already sorry that this creature finds me attractive. And already I want to leave. And already I want to round the monument in order to get on the trolley and just go wherever it will take me, somewhere to the outskirts, where the general public isn’t quite so unblinking.
But all of a sudden, this nice lady approaches me and says:
“Pardon me, sir… I’m so uncomfortable,” she says, “saying this. But my husband had an overcoat stolen that was just like yours. Could you be so kind and show me the lining?”
“Sure, of course,” I think, “she’s not gonna start talking to me just like that; she needs a reason.”
I open my overcoat, while flexing and fanning out my chest as much as I can. Having examined the lining, the lady raises a heart-rending squeal and starts to scream. Of course it’s her overcoat! The stolen overcoat, in which this scoundrel – I, that is – is currently draped.
Her moans are killing me. I wish I could die right then and there in the new pants and overcoat.
We go to the police station, where a report is filed. They ask me questions, to which I give honest answers. And when I am asked, in passing, how old I am, I tell them my age, and this practically three-digit number makes me shudder.
“Oh, so that’s why no one is looking at me!” I say to myself. “I’ve simply grown old. And I wanted to blame my wardrobe for the shortcomings of my personal life.”
I hand over the flea-market-bought stolen overcoat and, with no overcoat and my heart in disarray, I come out into the street.
“That’s all right, I’ll get by without that!” I say to myself. “My personal life will consist of toil. I’ll work. I will make myself useful to people. Women aren’t the only hope there is in this world.”
I scornfully deride the words of the bourgeois academic.
“Baloney!” I say. “Idle philosophizing. Typical western nonsense!”
I laugh. I spit left and right. And turn the other way when I see a woman passing.
But here’s the curious thing: this little incident happened two years ago. And although in these two years I’ve probably gotten even older, still, this past summer I met this one personage, and believe it or not, she really likes me. And the most important, and the funniest thing is – this summer I dressed as badly as possible. I wore God-knows-what-kind-of-pants and walked around in training shoes with holes in them.
And nevertheless, this had no effect on love. And I am happy and content over it, and we’re even marrying soon on account of the mutual feeling.
And I hope that what you’re going to read in the next story won’t happen to us.
Sure, Volod’ka Zavitushkin was a bit hasty. There was that.
You could say Volod’ka actually didn’t even get a decent look at his bride. The honest-to-God-truth be told, he hadn’t even ever seen her without a hat and overcoat. That’s why all the main events unfolded on the street.
And as for going with his bride to get acquainted with her dear mother right before the wedding, well, he got acquainted without taking his coat off, he did. In the hall. On the go, so to speak.
And as for his bride, Volodya Zavitushkin met her in a streetcar. Five days before the marriage ceremony.
There he is, sitting in a streetcar, and suddenly he sees that this young lady materializes before him. This not-bad-looking young woman. Neat-looking. In a winter overcoat.
And she’s standing, this very young lady in that winter overcoat of hers, in front of Volod’ka, and she’s hanging by a strap so as not to get knocked over by the passengers. And with the other hand, she’s clutching a package to her chest. Streetcar’s packed, of course. There’s shoving. The standing, frankly speaking, isn’t so hot.
So Volod’ka takes pity on her.
“Why don’t you sit down,” he says, “in my lap? It’ll be easier all the same.”
“Thanks,” she says, “but no thanks.”
“All right,” he says, “then why don’t you give me the package? Put it in my lap, don’t be shy. It’ll be easier all the same.” Nope, she’s not even surrendering the package. Maybe she’s scared he’s gonna filch it, or whatever it is. So Volod’ka Zavitushkin gives here another once-over, and is just stunned.
“My God,” he thinks, “you see the prettiest young women in streetcars.”
And they’re riding like this for two stops. Three. Four. Finally, Zavitushkin sees the young woman fighting her way exitward. No fool, Volod’ka gets up too. And by the exit, then, was where they made their acquaintance.
They exchanged names, began walking together. And everything kind of happened so quickly and without expense there, that in two days Volod’ka Zavitushkin even proposed to her too.
Maybe she said yes right away or whatever, but on the third day, there they were at the registry office to get officially married. This happened at city hall, and after that is when the main events actually started happening.
After the official ceremony, the newlyweds went to the bride’s dear mother’s place. Of course, Lord-knows-what is going on there. Table’s being set. There’s this heap of guests. It’s a family big deal – everyone’s awaiting the newlyweds.
And there are all these different kinds of ladies and gentlemen running all over the room, setting down the plates and silverware, and popping corks.
But Volod’ka Zavitushkin had lost his young bride while they were still in the hall. Those damn mommies and aunties, they surround him as soon as he walks in and start showering him with congratulations and start dragging him into the living room. They get him into the room. They’re saying something, shaking his hands, they’re curious to know what union he’s a member of.
But the only thing Volod’ka can see is that he can’t even make out where his young wife is. There are all these chics in the room. Each one’s twisting, each one’s turning; I mean, a guy just come off the street – someone coming in from where’s there’s natural light – he won’t be able to tell for his life.
“Man, oh, man,” thinks Volod’ka, “nothing like this has ever happened to me. Which one of them is my young bride?”
So around the room he begins to walk, stalking these dames. Comes up to one, then another one. But they’re not too eager to see him, you know, not much joy being expressed there.
Here’s where Volod’ka even got a little scared.
“Jeez,” he thinks to himself, “this is ridiculous. I can’t even find my own wife!”
And the relatives start looking at him strange, too, like, why’s the groom staggering around the room like an idiot and throwing himself at every dame he sees? So Volod’ka parks himself by a door, and just stands there all crestfallen.
“Oh, I hope they’re gonna start seating the guests real soon,” he thinks. “Maybe then things will clear up some. Whichever one sits down next to me must be the one. It would sure be nice if this blondie there sat next to me. ‘Cause if they slip me some dog, I’ll be stuck with her.”
And then the guests start sitting down at the table.
The dear mother is begging everyone to please-for-the-love-of-dear-God have a little more patience and wait some more. But you can’t hold these guests back; they’re going for the grub and the drink like wild people.
Then they take Volodya Zavitushkin and install him in the place of honor. And next to him, to one of his sides, they seat some dame.
So Volod’ka gave her a good look, and felt relieved.
“Whoa, she’s something,” he says to himself. “She’s not so bad,” he thinks. Looks much better without all that hattery too. The nose don’t stick out into the street so much,” he thinks.
Volodya Zavitushkin is overcome with feeling. He pours a little wine into his glass and her glass and makes for her to, you know, congratulate and kiss his bride.
And here’s where the main events started unfolding.
Here’s when the yelling and hollering started.
“This is one crazy sonofabitch,” people scream. “He’s going for all the dames. The young bride hasn’t even arrived at the table yet – still putting on the gloss – and he’s already starting to get fresh with another one!”
Here’s where this complete chaos and rubbish occurred.
Of course, Volod’ka should’ve turned everything into a joke. But he got awful offended. He got banged on the back of the head in all the commotion. Some relative whacked him with a bottle.
Volod’ka cries out: “To hell with all of you! You place all these broads around me, and then I’m supposed to figure out who is who!?”
The bride appears in a white virgin’s gown, clutching flowers in her little hands. “Oh, so it’s like that,” she says. “Well, there’ll be hell to pay for you.”
And, of course, again, there’s yelling, screaming and hysterical chaos. And, of course, the relatives want to throw Volod’ka outta there.
Volod’ka says: “At least let me eat something. Haven’t had a bite to eat since morning,” he says, “on account of all the hullabaloo.”
But the relations insisted and sent him flying down the stairs.
Next day, after work, Volodya Zavitushkin stopped by the registry office and got himself divorced.
There he heard some sour-sounding words, “Sometimes you’ll get these thoughtless marriages,” they told him. “But don’t do it again. Or you’ll end up in court.” And then they divorced him.
So now he’s single and can again get married to whoever’s willing.
But what good there is in marrying and why people should want to do it – that’s downright dumbfounding.
As a rule, wives cheat and – here’s the darndest thing – always love someone else instead of their husband. So, I don’t know about you, but my view is against a marriage like that. Although, as long as we’re talking about marriage, I’m for a strong and sturdy marriage. I’m just not blind to it, and know what’s involved.
Anyway, here’s what happened once in the love department.