La Ci Darem La Mano

by Colin Bower (March 2007)

 

My friend Gargery was obsessed by literature, women and alcohol. (I say “was” because he has been dead these past seven or eight years now). Nothing unusual about that, you might say. But in his case, it was an obsession with a distinct modulation. Note, for instance, that I say “alcohol”, in its generality, not wine, in its particularity. And I must add that you could use those three key words in any order, for the obsessions functioned seamlessly together, fed off one another, and informed one another. Finally, what made Gargery quite different from the run of the mill, is that although he loved all literature, his obsession lay with Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and within that oeuvre, with the plays of Christopher Marlowe, in evidence for which I repeat the true story that, after he had bedded a pretty and brainy editor from the publishing company where he and I worked, she said: “That was like being fucked by Shakespeare”, in response to which Gargery responded with some degree of hurt pride, “no, not by Shakespeare, by Marlowe, Kit Marlowe”. He pronounced the words “Kit Marlowe” as if taken together, they represented a key to a secret world of knowledge and delight; only know Kit Marlowe – know him from the inside, with love and passion -  and all the inner secrets of the world of literature, women and alcohol will be revealed.

Gargery had the perfect job for a man of his predilections: he was a tertiary book salesman, his job to visit all the great universities of South Africa on an endless round of calls, bearing gifts in the form of all the latest releases from Penguin, and the other distinguished imprints he carried in his capacious black leather bag.  He cultivated a veritable host of friends in high academic places, mostly in the humanities, and mostly academics who shared his particular obsessions in part or in whole, and he would  arrive at their offices unannounced, burst in, say nothing, open up his bag, and place before them -  hands shaking with reverence - his latest offering, like The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, for instance, as if it were a remnant of ancient truth he had personally garnered from the ruins of the Library of Alexandra.  “Look what a treasure I have for you today” he might say, impish grin on his face. And he would open it up at random, and read any sentence that caught his eye:

 

O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this unsubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries.                              

 

“Now, what do you think of that, my friend?” he would ask rhetorically.  The academics loved him, not just for who or what he was, but no doubt also because of the gifts he bore and distributed so readily.

The most important thing I need to tell you about him was his relationship with women, but before I do so, let me touch briefly on literature and alcohol.  Intellectually capable, but unpretentious, it was his unquenchable love for the magic of words that drove him through life, and he was always possessed of a ready battery of quotations, most usually from the book he had been reading the previous night. When we met in the car park, or at the coffee machine (rarely, because he was always away) we used to fire quotes at each other like Pat Garret and Billy the Kid trading in bullets, and on the few occasions when I won the duel, he would always declaim in triumphant joy at my little victory, “A hit sir, a palpable hit”. The world on every day that he woke to it was replete with the possibility of fresh discovery, and not withstanding the quiet desperation that dogs the lives of most of we members of the middling classes, Gargery – no stranger to financial deprivation - was always an enchanted spectator of the life that lay all about him.

Like no-one else I have ever known, Gargery lived out his life in permanent symbiotic relationship with literature. This is a human achievement of some significance. What he read was never only of theoretical import, it shaped him in the here-and-now. As a result, he was never much interested by the content of philosophical ideas, and he never cared much to talk to me about Leavis, for instance, or any other literary criticism. He wanted the raw material of the human heart, without benefit of mediation. And not just literature. He might snare the latest pop lyric and it would become the core message of one of his business presentations, mostly given in one state or another of intoxication, to the extreme outrage of his po-faced superiors and supervisors.  One year he latched on to a line, “Fool, if you think its over”, and worked up an improbable connection between it and his sales strategy for the year that was puzzling even to me, his friend and co-conspirator.  We both loved TS Eliot, and played out our corporate lives against a backdrop of the master’s complete works, but it was always to Marlowe that he returned, and re-read continuously. “Come Helen, come give me my soul again/Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips/And all is dross that is not Helena”, he said to me, gesturing to the vacant space alongside him, as if Helen of Troy were standing there before us, alongside his Toyota.

We both revered Brando, and would fantasise long and deliriously about the prospect of Brando’s playing Lear, an event we now know was not to be. But there was one particular book that made an impact on his life that was more startling than most in its directness.  I wonder if many NER readers will recognise the deliberately – one might even say provocatively – downbeat and clinical title, The Case of Mr Crump, by Ludwig Lewisohn.  Despite that blandest of titles, the book describes in horrifying detail the collapse of the marriage of a good man to an unworthy woman, and ends in a murder. It deserves to be widely recognised, and I recommend it confident that there cannot be a soul alive who would not feel traumatised by the emotional vortex the book takes its readers into. Gargery told me: “I finished the book at 10pm, and the next morning I went straight to the lawyer’s office and commenced with divorce proceedings”.  Had he not done so, his life also would have culminated in a murder.

Just as precipitately he became remarried to his secretary, with whom he had been having an affair at the time of his conversion by Mr Crump. Gargery, whom you would have to call an honest man, was driven by a higher sense of the purpose of life than the one suggested by the conventional proprieties, and he could no more stop finding women to love, even when married, than a lion could refrain from hunting springbuck.

And then there was his drinking. Prodigious is the word that I suppose most people would use to describe his appetite for strong drink. I can think of none better. He drank anything that came his way, but most of all he was a gin man, quite capable of knocking back a bottle without mixers at a sitting, taken at room temperature, and sipped from the screw cap. Whereas you and I might buy a bottle of gin of a Tuesday, and find ourselves ashamed and a little mortified to be buying another on Saturday morning, Gargery would buy his gin by the case.  I understand that, early on a Sunday morning, when the domestic heat was at a pitch, he would slink off to his pigeon loft, there to spend the day handling his beloved birds, no doubt murmuring poetic incantations to them much as Abdulhamid Hodja murmured verses from the Koran into the ear of his fine grey mare, Nulifer, in Birds Without Wings, and he would sink a bottle or two of gin throughout the rest of the pigeon-haunted, mellifluous live-long day. 

He was often intoxicated, but never boorishly drunk. Under the influence, his eyes sparkled, his wit effervesced, his fancy flourished, and his joy infected those not made immune by the clay in their soul. He would drink anyone under the table, young or old, male or female. On one memorable occasion a young pretender to the throne, over early evening cocktails, began to display a competitive spirit. When Gargery finally understood what was going on, he said: “Oh I see. It’s drinking that you want. Well certainly, come on my boy, I never realised it was drinking you wanted. So then, let’s drink”. For Gargery it was like a gun fight. And when the youngster slid under the table, barely conscious, Gargery was still holding forth (“Let me tell young man, the barge she sat on like a burnished throne burnt upon the water…”).

Only once did I see him intoxicated within the work place. It was a fatal error. We had a meeting at nine in the morning. When Gargery arrived I thought he was brighter – more percipient than ever – not just witty and entertaining, but strangely effusive about the enormous talents of everybody else in the company. He was frankly hilarious, charming, polished and urbane, chasing down metaphors, and losing himself in diversions to the main theme of our deliberations as completely as Milton does in Paradise Lost. It soon became apparent that Gargery had been drinking. And his boss was present at the meeting. I could never understand how a person could be drunk at 9am, for in my experience, this is the time for nursing hangovers. Eight hours later the notice announcing his dismissal went up on company notice boards, and I tasted ash in my mouth. They were effectively ending his life. In short order his wife divorced him, he suffered failure of his internal organs, and he contracted cancer. Two years later he was dead.  I wasn’t present right at the end, but I understand he was glossing his life with the passages he loved even as he passed away: “flights of angels attend thee to thy rest” he murmured, conflating his death with the death of Shakespeare’s sweet prince, and, if the Roman Catholic understanding of the hereafter is the correct one -  for he was a Roman Catholic - I am sure that they did. In the phrase he quoted, I can hear the very rustling of the angel’s wings.

But it was Gargery’s endless and unbounded love for women that is the matter of my tale at this point. Gargery loved sex and needed it – constantly – like a desert hungers for rain.  I realise that in revealing certain things about my friend Gargery, I overstep the bounds of propriety. But I do so believing that – certainly hoping that – I serve a higher truth concerning the significance of his life. He did not confide lurid details to me. He didn’t, in any scurrilous way, boast about his sexual appetite or his achievements. But he had no reason to think that he was breaking a confidence in telling me a little about himself from time-to-time (we were not bosom buddies, so to speak, we were not house guests of each other, and we did not fraternise unduly). He explained his sex drive to me as though it were a matter of fascination to him, and why should he not share that with a friend he cared for, just as another person might talk of his passion for stamp collecting? He needed sex at least once a day, and more if it were available to him. But his love of sex was a manifestation of his adoration of the principle of womanhood; he loved the person, not just the sex organs that were attached to it. In the plainest of women he readily found something that he could admire and love. Never did I hear Gargery make a slighting remark about a woman, and every conquest he made he remembered with a glow of affection.  He was then, nothing like a lothario, or a lounge room lizard. And his endless success with women arose from the fact that women warmed to the kind of recognition they received when Gargery touched their arms and looked into their eyes.

His business occupation was made for the enjoyment of literature and alcohol, but above all for the opportunity it provided him to fulfil the rampaging demands of his libido, for he was always away from home, always at a conference here or there, and always within reach of a hotel room, although he would think nothing untoward of sex in his office during daylight hours, in the back of a hired car…or on the beach. And it is to an episode on the beach that I will shortly turn.

Virgins may well have fallen in Gargery’s path, but oddly it was often with women older than himself that he made his conquests.  How often, at a conference, when the youngsters had gone to bed, would some matron find herself spellbound by Gargery’s attention, his rendition of Tamburlaine, “Now walk the angels on the walls of heaven,/As sentinels to warn th’ immortal souls,/To entertain divine Zenocrate”,  and above all, by his observant charm: he would notice the colour of her eyes, the smell of her fragrance, her jewellery, or the recollection she gave him of some other great beauty he had once known. As much as he was direct, physical, boisterous and clearly intoxicated, he was also wonderfully gallant. No, I retract that. “Gallant” is the wrong word – it’s far too frivolous. Gallantry is for men who want to play the mating game, not for men who want to mate. But he made that matron feel like a woman, recognised and admired, when often enough she had not been made to feel that way for the previous 20 years of her existence. And although she might have been a humble debtor’s clerk who read Wilbur Smith for pleasure, she would find herself in a conversation about literature with a guide who never spoke down to her. And in the small hours of the night, when all good corporate citizens were asleep in their Holiday Inn bedrooms entertaining determined dreams of success, Gargery would be lying on the warm sands of a nearby beach in close proximity to a woman in a partial state of undress, and he would make love to her once or twice or thrice before the dawn, and it wouldn’t worry him a bit that he had to do the day’s first presentation at 8.30.

And the woman? I have no means of knowing, but – even if it were to be the case that she emerged from an hour or so of sleep embarrassed by the prospect of daylight, and sick with the guilt of her previous night’s indiscretions – as the years passed she would surely look back with increasing approbation for the woman who once lay on a beach under the stars and made wonderful love to a stranger.

A final recollection: one of Gargery’s special friends from the English Department of a great university – let us call him Pip, Pip Shawnbirk, a strange name I know – was lecturing in a small rural university town. Prof. Shawnbirk was a thespian, with silver hair and beard, bel canto enunciation, and greatly attractive of mien to the demimonde of the lecture halls. After a particularly good performance – perhaps he was lecturing on Marvel, “To his Coy Mistress” - he was approached in a moment of privacy by a young female student. Would, she asked, would he sleep with her? The professor pondered, thought of Zorba, and agreed. But would he sleep with her that same night, for she was to be leaving town in the morning? It so happened that the eminent professor had a social engagement that evening, but he thought once more of Zorba, and agreed to cancel his arrangements in her favour. But she still wasn’t finished. Would he make love to her, she asked, even though she was right then in the full flow of her menses? The professor stroked his silver beard, pondered, thought once more of Zorba, and murmured: “But that is no problem, my dear, no problem at all, of course I will”.  

When he later explained this unusual encounter to his friend Gargery -  who in turn recounted it to me - he said: “Gargery, I left her bed as bloody as a butcher’s chopping block”. The generosity of this act of sexual prowess under challenging circumstances made a huge impression on Gargery, and enhanced the affection and the respect he felt for his friend Pip.  It epitomised for Gargery a kind of worldliness of the best sort: a big heart, a strong constitution, an ability to ride slipshod over the minor obstacles of life, a manly way with biological detail, and an appreciation for the trials and the tribulations of being female. Over the years, as I have thought about this story, I have come to share Gargery’s admiration for his friend.

 

These various recollections were catalysed by a recent review of the collected writings of Casanova I came across on the Internet. If one doesn’t know better – and I didn’t until I read the review – one is inclined to believe that the word “casanova” is mostly a pejorative way of describing a cheap womaniser: you know, the kind of man who likes the bodily parts of a woman whilst forgetting that they are attached to a living person, who boasts of his conquests in the steam baths at the gym, and who more often than not disparages to his mates the very women he has slept with. As I learned from the review, this could not be further from the truth. Casanova put me much in mind of my friend Gargery.

Casanova also of course loved women, and was driven by carnal desire (nothing wrong with that), but more, by an endless fascination for the very principle of womanhood.  Or to quote the reviewer Eric Ormsby: “True, he lusts after them (women), but he finds their minds as sexy as their bodies.” He devoted his life to women, just as other men devote their life to climbing mountains, conquering foreign lands, inventing new machines, or healing the sick, and I cannot think of anything wrong with a life devoted to such a purpose. One of the attractive aspects of Casanova’s personality, as it was about Gargery’s, was the happy absence of ego that characterised it. A strange conclusion to reach, you might say, about men driven endlessly to satisfy their lusts. But their obsession was not so much lust as fascination for what lay outside of themselves – the “other”, and in particular, the “other” that resides in a woman. It is a fascination for life itself, and a love for the things that you cannot own, notwithstanding all your striving to own them.  It is a strong man who entertains such an obsession, for rapture is necessarily momentary, and it is not for nothing that the Romans said, post coitus homo tristes est. Casanova was himself an immensely strong man, who fell into many an awful scrape as a consequence of his obsession, not least of them his imprisonment for 15 months under the searing lead roofs of the Doge’s palace in Venice, where he was tormented by fleas, stalked by huge rats, and so confined he could barely stand. Did he feel sorry for himself under such pressing circumstances? Did he give way to regret? Not a damn. In prison he fulminates against the absence of women, entertains his fellow prisoners with his mordant humour, and then succeeds in a daring escape, immediately thereafter resuming the high-risk life that already brought about his incarceration.

In the realm of myth, the greatest of womanisers is of course Don Juan and his many derivatives, in the case of Mozart, Don Giovanni. The Don is not so admirable a man. He kills Donna Anna’s father and is quite oblivious to the harm his philandering ways cause others.  But his redeeming feature is that, if he cares little for the consequence of his action in the lives of others, he is also utterly uncaring for the consequences of his actions in his own life, and he goes to the burning fires of hell magnificently unrepentant.

The Don’s eloquence as a seducer of women is most apparent in the wonderful duet he sings with Zerlina, La ci darem la mano. The duet is an incarnation in words and music of the seducer’s strategy. Don Giovanni sings a refrain so beautiful he knows it will penetrate to the inner being of Zerlina. Bit by bit he coaxes her to repeat the words he has sung to this loveliest of melodies. And bit by bit she responds. By the time she accompanies him, she is a lost cause. The seduction is complete, and we know that the Don will shortly thereafter be relieving her of her garments. But even at his most predatory, the Don is an artist, with – like Gargery and Casanova – an intimate understanding of what lives within a woman in order for it to be addressed, and moved to action.

The big question I have finally arrived at after so much preparation is this: for all the gloss that I might have put on their actions, is my friend Gargery, or Casanova, or the mythical Don Giovanni, finally any different from the apocryphal Aussie, who says by way of foreplay: “Roll over Sheila, and brace yerself”? Or, put in what I hope is a more resonant way: is there a genuine possibility of the love of men for woman – love expressed as physical desire – which is not merely predatory exploitation in disguise?

It seems to me that the Nobel Prize-winning Australian-based South African author J M Coetzee thinks not. This year director Steve Jacobs is making a film of Coetzee’s Booker Prize-wining novel, Disgrace, for which John Malkowich has been cast in the lead role. Most commentators think we are in store for a cinematic treat. I am not one of them. One critic goes so far as to contemplate the likelihood of an Oscar for Malkowich presumably on the strength alone of the film’s basis in this much revered work. Coetzee’s fame and reputation appears to know no bounds, certainly amongst the literary reviewing classes, right up to the adjudicating committee of the Nobel Prize.  What astounds me is that a writer who is so consistently misogynistic, and so incapable of representing a sexual relationship as being something other than manipulative, calculating, or cruel, is so uncritically liked  if not revered.  My distaste for Coetzee extends a deal further than my distaste for his apparent understanding of the nature of relationships between men and women, but in this instance, I will limit my comment simply to his evocation of sexual relationships, and my astonishment that so slight an achievement as Disgrace carries sufficient weight to earn the attention of Hollywood.

As many readers may know, Disgrace tells the story of one David Lurie, who seduces one of his students at the college where he teaches, gets dismissed, visits his daughter on the deep rural farm where she lives, and – after his daughter has been raped by a farm worker - finally moves on to a relationship with a woman who looks after stray animals. Lurie never sees the person who is attached to the particular sex organs he likes playing with – in fact he never demonstrates that he is aware that any other human consciousness functions independently of his own. By seducing his student, he exploits his position of authority and blights her young life. Nothing different in that, you may say, from the seduction of Zerlina by Don Giovanni. But there is! The Don loves Zerlina, as he loves all women! By contrast Lurie loathes women; at best he sees them as discrete arrangements of body parts: “Without warning a memory of the girl comes back: of her neat little breasts with their upstanding nipples, of her smooth flat belly. A ripple of desire passes through him”. Ignoring the GQ magazine depiction of female desirability, it is the lack of any awareness that the girl whose name he doesn’t use - Melanie – has a mind as well as a body that is so shocking an indictment of Lurie’s character.

My friend Gargery made love to women in the literal as well as the figurative sense. Lurie expresses his hatred through sex: “The second time he takes her out they stop at his house and have sex. It is a failure. Bucking and clawing, she works herself into a froth of excitement that in the end only repels him.” This is Lurie in typical mode: “He has not taken to Bev Shaw, a dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped wiry hair, and no neck…dumpy little women with ugly voices deserve to be ignored…” Soon he is of course screwing the same Bev Shaw, presumably without ever addressing her by name, for he has told himself: “Provided that I don’t have to call her Bev. It’s a silly name to go by. It reminds me of cattle.” What on earth is there about Lurie to interest us? Is it the pathology that he represents? No, it can’t be, for the author’s attitude towards his repellent creation hovers close to endorsement: the closing scene of the book in which Lurie helps that poor creature Bev to load the carcasses of euthenased dogs into an incinerator is represented as something like atonement – although Lurie has achieved nothing by way of insight into his pathology, if that is what it is, and there is no evidence of transformation.

Meanwhile daughter Lucy has been raped by – in the book’s own terms – a black farm worker, and the widest critical consensus that I am aware of is that this is to be regarded as a necessary act of vengeance for the injustices perpetrated by the white settlers in South Africa, and indeed this is the way in which Lucy regards it. She seeks no medical help for the attack, registers no need for therapy, indulges in no self-pity, refuses to attach any blame on the rapist, and martyrs herself to the cause of bearing the child.

Now, believe me, I know we live in a bleak world, and South Africa has had its bleakest of moments. I understand that, and I understand that when bleakness is reflected in an artistic vision, it must be appreciated for what it is, not criticised for what it isn’t. My protest against Disgrace is not that it is bleak, but that it is untrue. Submission to rape is not a necessary atonement. And though the relationships between men and women are habitually cruel, manipulative, exploitative and even violent, there can be more to them than that, and there often is. In case you think I am being selective in reporting on what I find in Coetzee’s novels, I will readily take you on a tour from his first book, Dusklands, published in 1974, through to Disgrace, and show you page after page of the most loathsome depiction of sexual relations between men and women you will have read.

I have been criticised for identifying Coetzee on a simplistic one-to-one relationship with the miserable characters he has created over so many decades. This is a criticism as naive as the naiveté it holds me accountable for. Shakespeare is not Iago, nor Thomas Hardy Angel Clare, but Shakespeare and Hardy expose Iago and Clare to a universe which contextualises them, and they deploy their characters in the search for an encompassing vision of life. Coetzee doesn’t do that. He gives us his sorry protagonists -  hopeless failures all, desiccated husks of people who are incapable of thought, or insight, or apprehension of the world of possibility - so resolutely in book after book that I have no choice but to believe they represent some important part of their creator.

So, go and see Disgrace, if you must, when it gets to a cinema near you. But please don’t think it has anything to say about South Africa, about South Africans, or about life itself.  When I think of Gargery, that force for good, cold in the earth, and Coetzee, living to do dirt on life, I think with a peculiar anguish of Lear’s words when confronted by Cordelia’s corpse:

 

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all?

 

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