Friday, March 01, 2013

An enigma called José Matias

In Eça de Queirós’ enigmatic short story “José Matias” we learn about a man who is in love with a married woman but runs away from her when, becoming a widow, she is available and wants to marry him. He refuses at least twice to marry her. Instead he prefers to look at her from the distance and ends his life as a homeless dude getting drunk in a bar facing her windows. 
There may be many ways of explaining José Matias’ behavior and the narrator of the story, a professor of philosophy, tries to solve the problem concluding at one point  that José Matias was happy loving  Elisa spiritually and didn’t mind, after having kind of self educating himself, leaving her body (whatever that means) to other men. Is José Matias perplexed and scared by the greatness of the love he feels? We may also think that by not marrying the widow his love for her would not suffer from the harsh introduction of reality (love may be a dream but marriage is reality) in their relationship; but on this topic we need to say more.
While I would not consider the above-mentioned explanations incorrect I think that there is another way of looking at the enigma. I found it in Rilke’s Duino’s Elegies. See the beginning of the first Elegy (Stephen Mitchell’s translation):

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
 And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note
of my dark sobbing.

If we follow Rilke we may think that the love José Matias feels for Elisa is above his capacity of enduring it: “he would be consumed in that overwhelming existence”. That would explain his refusal of marrying her and keep her at distance. Isn’t beauty “the beginning of terror”? Isn't every angel "terrifying"? José Matias knows it and "holds back" and "swallow(s) the call-note" of his "dark sobbing". Rilke seems to make in other verses of this poem and in other poems statements that go in the same direction. Doesn’t he doubt that other human beings would be able to help us in "our need"? Angels and animals wouldn’t do better and maybe only “some tree in a hillside” or “yesterdays’ street” or, and it’s amazing, “the loyalty of a habit” would be of some help to us. Help to our "solitary heart", what says it all clearly: there is no escape from loneliness.
Let's read more:

Oh and night: there is night, when a wind full of infinite space
gnaws at our faces. Whom would it not remain for - that longed-after,
mildly disillusioning presence, which the solitary heart
so painfully meets. Is it any less difficult for lovers?
But they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.
Don't you know yet? Fling the emptiness out of your arms
into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds
 will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.

Yes- the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing. All this was mission.
But could you accomplish it? Weren't you always
distracted by expectation, as if every event
announced a beloved?

What does Rilke mean when he says that lovers “keep on using each other to hide their own fate”?  And what "fate" is he referring to if not to our incapacity of understanding, of loving, of possessing, of duration? He goes so far as to doubt that we can accomplish “the mission”. What mission? Spring needs us, he says, the stars wait for us to notice them, “a wave rolled towards us”, “a violin yielded itself” to our “hearing”. But weren’t we “always distracted by expectations, as if every event announced a beloved?” Yet, surprisingly maybe, after mentioning our incapacity of paying attention, of understanding, of possessing, he also questions our capacity of love:

 Where can you find a place
to keep her, with all the huge strange thoughts inside you
going and coming and often staying all night.

Let's not forget to point to other remarks in the poem: what is Rilke referring to when he evokes "that longed-after, mildly disillusioning presence, which the solitary heart so painfully meets"? And if you really are in love isn't your experienced "emptiness" an unexpected and tragic contradiction? You didn't get what you thought you were promised.

I will stop here for the moment. Maybe we get into more problems than solutions when we try to understand both Rilke and Eça.... and ourselves. True love seems to be presented here as being at the same time an experience that may exceed the lover's potential resources and as an experience that may end deceiving his expectations. My impression is that José Matias' enigmatic behavior could be explained in a rilkean way by his awareness of how great is the love he feels and how insufficient would be his capacity of enduring it for real and of making it real. 

José Matias also seems to have understood something else and that too could be part of the explanation for his behavior: Elisa will never love him as he loves her, she will never understand what is at stake, her love is of a more imperfect human nature. Didn't she easily replace him by another man - and she did it twice - when she understood that he was not interested in marrying her? What kind of important love was her love for José Matias if she could replace him? Her need of love was easily satisfied by the two men and the lover she found to replace the stubborn José Matias. She has never been aware of how much she was worth...   at José Matias' eyes.

It may also be that love, an intense love, may seem better fulfilled (with even some premonitory joy) when escaped in death, away from the loved one, who is not asked to give anything in return. But on this topic it's better not to elaborate. 

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