Saturday, March 19, 2011

Zeno’s Conscience: The Story of a Business Partnership

We were neither good nor bad, just as we were also not many other things. Goodness was the light that, in flashes and for moments, illuminated the dark human spirit. The flaming torch was necessary to give light (it had been in my spirit, and sooner or later it would also return), and in that brightness any thinking person could choose the direction in which to move through the ensuing darkness. We could therefore show ourselves to be good, very good, always good, and this was what mattered. When the light returned, it would not take us by surprise, it would not dazzle. I would blow on it to put it out first, since I had no need of it. Because I would know how to maintain the resolution, in other words, the direction. The resolution to be good is calm and practical, and now I was calm and cold. Strange! The excess of goodness had made me excessive in estimating myself and my power.

Zeno constantly overestimates himself and it has little to do with his excess of goodness. This long chapter follows Zeno and his brother-in-law Guido in their attempt at running a business. There isn’t much new in the way of themes that I have already mentioned in previous posts on Svevo’s book, but this chapter took on a much darker tone than I had noticed (or maybe had wanted to notice) in earlier ones. There will be some spoilers in what follows, but I don’t feel guilty (shades of Zeno!) since Svevo telegraphs what will happen.

Guido becomes undone by himself, family, friends, and fate. Guido’s lack of discipline and tenacity degrades his professional and personal life. In many ways, Guido resembles Zeno except he lacks the resolve of good intentions—does this mean good intentions are worth more than I give them credit? Business proves to be a harsh task for both Guido and Zeno because only results matter—intentions aren’t enough. His insistence on keeping his mistress employed in the office leads to friction with Ada, his wife. Since Zeno always talks about business in terms of gambling, and the stock market as doubly so, they bring out the worst in Guido’s character. His family encourages his participation in the stock market, where it’s clear his ruin is guaranteed. As his friend and semi-business partner, Zeno intends to protect or correct Guido but, as usual with Zeno, his intentions don’t go very far. To be fair, his resolve does carry farther with Guido than with almost any other project. Fate plays a major part in Guido’s demise since the confluence of Guido’s fake suicide attempt (taken lightly by his wife after a previous “attempt”) and a major storm undermine help from the doctor.

Because of the length of the chapter, there are many topics I could go over but I wanted to focus on what I saw as the dark turn. There are several allusions to life as a sickness in earlier chapters, but Svevo expresses it directly in this one: “Natural law does not entitle us to happiness, but rather it prescribes wretchedness and sorrow.” What’s humorous about such an outlook in this context is the resistance Zeno shows to psychoanalysis, yet such a sentiment follows a history through Schopenhauer to Freud. Zeno believes health exists only relative to others’ sicknesses. Taking aim at analysis again, Zeno determines “My sickness was a ruling passion, a dream, and also a fear. It must have originated from a process of reasoning, by the term perversion we mean a deviation from health, that kind of health that accompanied us for a stretch of our life.”

If life is a sickness, and dwelling on it makes things worse, death can be the only cure. Zeno’s comments when looking at Guido’s and Ada’s newborn twins doesn’t prove uplifting at what is in store for them: “To me they looked like two blanched little corpses.”(This comment also echoes an earlier conversation Zeno had with Ada regarding how to spare children from suffering by making them love parents less, and Ada responds by saying in that case “the surest method would be to kill them.”) Religion can be useful but Zeno parodies the benefits. He constantly talks about his innocence, often when having just committed terrible acts. He feels innocent when he doesn’t spend the entire night at his mistress’ house as he planned or when he returns home from her bed earlier than normal. He constantly feels the need to confess, both to his wife and his mistress. In this chapter he confesses twice to his wife and each time he immediately falls asleep and has a great night’s sleep. (There may be a joke there equating the benefits of confession and sex.)

In missing Guido’s funeral, Zeno declares he “couldn’t linger over those religious practices.” Life’s activities are more important to him than going through the motions of religion. After all, if life is a sickness only death can purify. But then Zeno’s self-history has to be taken with more than a grain of salt. His misinterpretations and misunderstandings undermine much of what he says. He creates his innocence out of thin air, substituting good intentions for expiation. I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads us in Zeno’s last chapter.

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