Chapter 3: Sex & Death
He peered into the nebulous interior of the glazed decanter. Empty. Surely he hadn’t drunk it all? That silly girl must have put too much water in, a waste of good Falernian, the only reasonable explanation. He would never normally drink a whole decanter on his own; well, not often; at least not more than once or twice a week. Now he craved a glass of something strong and spicy – something infused with tangy pepper and heady spikenard – a perfect coda to conclude this aromatic lunchtime concertino. He had long since reconciled his conscience to reality: there would be no returning to his study this afternoon – he had, after all, satisfyingly completed a particularly knotty couplet this morning, and besides it was just too nice a day for work.
The girl was waiting, he could see her out of the corner of his eye standing in the kitchen doorway, cloth in hand, patient, unmoving, for all the world as if she too were a statue, another goddess. Her apron hung loose over her hips, her black hair lay carelessly over her shoulders, its scattered ends accentuating the swelling of her breasts beneath the light tunic. He felt an inevitable stirring: he was just a man after all and, as all women know only too well, no man – be he ever so eminent a philosopher or poet (or both) – is ever free from the tyranny of his gonads.
Philosophically he was fully aware that one cannot achieve tranquility from the gratification of sexual passion (indeed, most are lucky if they escape unharmed), but such a frigid argument was hardly well calculated to cool the rising heat of his immediate desire. Cruder methods were required: pour cold water on the flame, quick, before it gets out of control. He sneaked another glance at the girl. That coal-black hair – greasy – those white cheeks – sallow – curvaceous hips – disproportionate – long, slender legs – knock-kneed. An imperfect creature, no goddess she. A veritable hag, broken and bent. Then one glance too many – wide nut-brown eyes, plump kissable lips – the cure wasn’t working.
Unmoving she waited still for his summons; but was she unaware of her own beauty, of the effect she was having on him? He could never be persuaded that women in general didn’t know what they did to men simply by their physical presence. What an alien experience to feel the nature of the Beautiful, not in the abstract but in one’s own body: actually to embody the Beautiful, as this girl quite definitely did. A sensual realm closed to men, and therefore endlessly fascinating to them. The Beautiful delights in recognition: both philosopher and poet are drawn to it inevitably. He could rationalise it all he liked – the incarnate Form of Beauty in the abstract and all that high-flown stuff – but in the end he was just a man, with a man’s prosaic urges.
There once was a time when he had been able to resist. Once, long ago (or so it now seemed) in Athens, hallowed ground for all of a philosophic turn. The cypress groves, the gymnasium, the old Academy out along the tomb-lined road from the Dipylon Gate, looking back to the sun-blazed golden mass of the Acropolis in the distance: a magical place, the abode of gods and heroes. But ruined now, its heart ripped out by rough Roman hands – the roughest of all, the brute hands of the tyrant Sulla. Walls smashed into ugly mounds, temples thrown down, their statues desecrated, evidence everywhere of the Might of Rome – and its shame. Still a magical place despite the rape. He remembered it fondly, the quality of the light as the sun foamed into the Aegean, the taste of the black olives, more bitter than Italian ones, the kisses of the dark-skinned Greek girls, their silverish laughter. And the arguments, as tortuous and rancorous as only Greeks can manage: Cynics and Sceptics, mystical Pythagoreans and hard-headed Democriteans, sensible Aristotelians and subtle Sophists, Panaetian Stoics and Posidonian Stoics, not forgetting Platonists, Neo-Platonists, Proto-Platonists and Post-Platonists. His youthful head whirled agreeably amid the disputatious maelstrom. When at last he stopped spinning he found he had become a Stoic. It was what all his friends were doing.
And so he had learned to resist. He had followed the Stoic regime, had exercised, endured, forsworn, abstained. To abstain – surely the least popular verb in any language; curiously, a badge of honour for some. He knew Stoics still – or, at least, those who claimed the title however superficially – old friends of his family, aristocrats, some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the Republic, who had their own custom-built hovels at the bottom of their gardens where they delighted to spend their leisure hours in extremis, wearing sackcloth, shivering without a fire, covering themselves in ashes and dirt, dining on thin gruel, all the while meditating on the suppositious loss of their families, the imagined ruin of their estates, and the brute fact of their own death. Then, at the appointed hour when their slaves had been instructed to remind them, they would trudge back to their sumptuous villas, wash away the pauper’s grime in their private bathhouses, and resume their plutocrat lifestyles – only to vaunt their abstinence on the next business day: I had nothing but polenta and water for two days; Piffle! I never ate at all; Well, I slept on the straw among the fleas and ticks; Straw! luxury! I didn’t lie down the whole time; I beat myself with a stick; I had my slave beat me with a rod …et cetera et cetera.
He tried it for a while on his return home from Greece. It didn’t suit him. He had felt cold and hungry and miserable without properly understanding why. Training for the day when Fortune’s wheel turns you upside down, his genuine and compassionate Stoic friends said, training to understand how to let go. Trouble was, he did not touch the world lightly enough. A problem for an aspiring Stoic: he loved his books, his wine cellar, his garden; still more he loved his friends, his children and, yes, though she tried his patience almost wilfully at times, his wife. Free yourself from attachments, the Stoics preached, loosen your grip on possessions, on all things beyond your control, on other people. But he could not. The ones you love are not mere chattels, he reasoned, nor are they external. They are a part of your own self, they live inside you; to lose them is to lose yourself. That’s what makes their deaths so hard to bear; the dissolution of more than simply atoms into the void.
He looked again at the kitchen door. The girl had gone, doubtless bored with waiting. He sighed. But at least the heat in his belly had cooled: that’s Stoicism for you, a guaranteed passion-killer. Perhaps his wife would be willing later, after dinner tonight; perhaps at the climax of consummation he would close his eyes and think of the girl? He was just a man, after all.
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[Go to Chapter 3, Part 2]