Saturday, January 22, 2011

Musset: The well-beloved skeleton

Returning to Paris in the month of December, I passed the winter attending pleasure parties, masquerades, suppers, rarely leaving
Desgenais, who was delighted with me: not so was I with him. The more I went about, the more unhappy I became. It seemed to me after a short time that the world which had at first appeared so strange would hamper me, so to speak, at every step; yet where I had expected to see a spectre, I discovered, upon closer inspection, a shadow.

Desgenais asked what ailed me.

"And you?" I asked. "What is the matter with you? Have you lost some relative? Or do you suffer from some wound?"

At times he seemed to understand and did not question me. Occasionally we sat down at a cafe table and drank until our heads swam; or in the middle of the night took horses and rode ten or twelve leagues into the country; returning to the bath, then to table, then to gambling, then to bed; and on reaching mine, I fell on my knees and wept. That was my evening prayer.

Strange to say, I took pride in passing for what I was not, I boasted of being worse than I really was, and experienced a sort of melancholy pleasure in doing so. When I had actually done what I claimed, I felt nothing but ennui, but when I invented an account of some folly, some story of debauchery, or a recital of an orgy with which I had nothing to do, it seemed to me that my heart was better satisfied, although I know not why.

Whenever I joined a party of pleasure-seekers and visited some spot made sacred by tender associations I became stupid, went off by myself, looked gloomily at the trees and bushes as if I would like to trample them under my feet. Upon my return I would remain silent for hours.

The baleful idea that truth is nudity beset me on every occasion.

"The world," I said to myself, "is accustomed to call its disguise virtue, its chaplet religion, its flowing mantle convenience. Honor and Morality are man's chambermaids; he drinks in his wine the tears of the poor in spirit who believe in him; while the sun is high in the heavens he walks about with downcast eye; he goes to church, to the ball, to the assembly, and when evening has come he removes his mantle and there appears a naked bacchante with the hoofs of a goat."

But such thoughts aroused a feeling of horror, for I felt that if the body was under the clothing, the skeleton was under the body. "Is it possible that that is all?" I asked in spite of myself. Then I returned to the city, I saw a little girl take her mother's arm, and I became
like a child.

Although I had followed my friends into all manner of dissipation, I had no desire to resume my place in the world of society. The sight of women caused me intolerable pain; I could not touch a woman's hand without trembling. I had decided never to love again.

Nevertheless I returned from the ball one evening so sick at heart that I feared that it was love. I happened to have had beside me at supper the most charming and the most distinguished woman whom it had ever been my good fortune to meet. When I closed my eyes to sleep I saw her image before me. I thought I was lost, and I at once resolved that I would avoid meeting her again. A sort of fever seized me, and I lay on my bed for fifteen days, repeating over and over the lightest words I had exchanged with her.

As there is no spot on earth where one can be so well-known by his neighbors as in Paris, it was not long before the people of my acquaintance who had seen me with Desgenais began to accuse me of being a great libertine. In that I admired the discernment of the world: in proportion as I had passed for inexperienced and sensitive at the time of my rupture with my mistress, I was now considered corrupt and hardened. Some one had just told me that it was clear I had never loved that woman, that I had doubtless merely played at love, thereby paying me a compliment which I really did not deserve; but the truth of it was that I was so swollen with vanity I was charmed with it.

My desire was to pass as blase, even while I was filled with desires and my exalted imagination was carrying me beyond all limits. I began to say that I could not make any headway with the women; my head was filled with chimeras which I preferred to realities. In short, my unique pleasure consisted in altering the nature of facts. If a thought were but extraordinary, if it shocked common sense, I became its ardent champion at the risk of advocating the most dangerous sentiments.

My greatest fault was imitation of everything that struck me, not by its beauty but by its strangeness, and not wishing to confess myself an imitator I resorted to exaggeration in order to appear original. According to my idea, nothing was good or even tolerable; nothing was worth the trouble of turning the head, and yet when I had become warmed up in a discussion it seemed as if there was no expression in the French language strong enough to sustain my cause; but my warmth would subside as soon as my opponents ranged themselves on my side.

It was a natural consequence of my conduct. Although disgusted with the life I was leading I was unwilling to change it:

        Simigliante a quells 'nferma
        Che non puo trovar posa in su le piume,
        Ma con dar volta suo dolore scherma.--DANTE.

Thus I tortured my mind to give it change, and I fell into all these vagaries in order to get away from myself.

But while my vanity was thus occupied, my heart was suffering, so that ever within me were a man who laughed and a man who wept. It was a perpetual struggle between my head and my heart. My own mockeries frequently caused me great pain and my deepest sorrows aroused a desire to burst into laughter.

One day a man boasted of being proof against superstitious fears, in fact, fear of every kind. His friends put a human skeleton in his bed and then concealed themselves in an adjoining room to wait for his return. They did not hear any noise, but in the morning they found him dressed and sitting on the bed playing with the bones; he had lost his reason.

I might be that man but for the fact that my favorite bones are those of a well-beloved skeleton; they are the debris of my first love, all that remains of the past.
The Confessions of a Child of the Century

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