Sunday, March 13, 2011

Zeno’s Conscience: Wife and Mistress

Lunch was sad. Augusta sought no explanation for my tardiness, and I offered her none. I was afraid of giving myself away, especially because, during the brief walk between the Public Garden and home, I had toyed with the idea of telling her everything, and the story of my infidelity might therefore be written on my honest face. That would have been the only way of saving myself. Telling her everything, I would have placed myself under her protection and under her surveillance. It would have been such a decisive act that then, in good faith, I could have marked that day’s date as a start toward honesty and health.

I cherished the picture of myself as the good husband, who never becomes less good for being adulterous.

This chapter for this post picks up shortly after Zeno’s wedding and traces how he gained and lost a mistress. All quotes from the book use the translation by William Weaver. It's been a strange, tough couple of weeks so I'll try and get back in the swing of posting.

“Who could have foreseen this, when I was limping from Ada to Alberta, to arrive at Augusta? I discovered I had not been a blind fool manipulated by others, but a very clever man.” I'll go with the blind fool, actually. Zeno continues to piece together his life, writing in order to help himself and his psychoanalyst. Yet when Zeno analyzes things he tends to distort their meaning. Many times he travels part of the way to understanding, only to veer off into some comic contradiction. His fear of aging and of dying haunts him, feeding a premature jealousy of his widow’s remarriage. Suffering invigorates Zeno and his wife’s comfort provides more pleasure, even when the suffering comes from his infidelity. His wife is only partially right when she calls her husband “an imaginary sick man”. Zeno is sick, even if it is only in his imagination. Carrying out resolutions also makes Zeno physically ill.

Lack of resolve
“I already knew I was a plaything in the hands of the intemperate forces of nature. Nature, who found little difficulty in accumulating those forces, found even less in unleashing them.”

Zeno’s lack of resolve causes him to blame nature or others for his weak will. He blames his wife for giving him a pretext to take a mistress. He resolves to stay away from Carla, his mistress, but always returns to her. When Zeno goes to visit Carla, it's in order to live “more intensely”. Once with her, though, the same desire “would have led me at once back to Augusta, who was the only one with whom I could have talked about my love for her [Carla].” It's as if he recognizes how much he truly loves his wife when with Carla.

Even with his lack of resolve Zeno occasionally has insights into his lack of freedom (but not very often). For someone examining his life for analysis he shows a remarkable hit-or-miss ability to understand himself. Zeno wants his self-analysis, which he believes to be from a position of insight, to absolve him of guilt and sickness but the reader knows nothing will change. Zeno constantly makes matters worse by playing with fire. It isn’t just his smoking that he talks about in this quote: “It was a brief moment, full of the best intentions. I even remembered some strange advice once given me to rid myself of the habit of smoking, and it might work also on this occasion: sometimes, to be satisfied, it was enough to light the match, then throw away both match and cigarette.” Zeno always lights the match but throws away nothing.

Zeno admits that perhaps "I love the weaker sex in direct proportion to its weakness.” This might explain why he loves himself so much.

Religious tone
“I felt very innocent because, to begin with, I hadn’t betrayed her by staying away from our conjugal domicile for a whole night [he was with his mistress only part of the evening]. This innocence was so beautiful that I was tempted to enhance it. I began by uttering some words resembling a confession.”

Religion, or at least religious language, receives a lot of emphasis in this section. I’ve mentioned this aspect earlier but it really comes into its own in this chapter. Words such as innocent, innocence, pure, saved, confess, confession, faith, and indulgence appear often. I will have to confess that I am not sure where Svevo is going with this. Is he comparing religion to psychoanalysis? Is he making a commentary on the inadequacy of psychoanalysis? Of religion? Analysis proves inadequate for his problems to this point—he thinks he is analyzing himself while at the same time demeaning the doctor that suggested recording his history. I want to see where the religious language goes…it’s an interesting angle that Svevo is adding.

Zeno feels pure or innocent when leaving his mistress early to return to his wife. He absolves himself of his sins immediately, which is fitting for someone that experiences guilt before he commits a (planned) sin. Most of the time, though, he pins the blame of his sins on others. For example, his mistress Carla was supposed to offer resistance since that was her “mission as a woman.”

And with that, I’ll end the post with Zeno’s laws of motion as I see them:
1) Zeno tends to bumble along in the same state of motion until acted upon by an outside force (at which point Zeno will panic). Zeno’s intentions have no impact on his motion.
2) The relationship between Zeno’s enjoyment of an action can be stated as Enjoyment = Action x “Last”. If Zeno intends his action as the last time he will perform it, the variable “Last” is greater than 1, magnifying his enjoyment. If Zeno doesn't intend his action to be for the last time, the variable “Last” approaches zero.
3) For each of Zeno’s actions there are multiple reactions, all unequal, disproportionate, and nonlinear.

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