Chapter 6 [Part 1]

Decadence & Desire

The Oxford Latin Dictionary (OLD) defines lupa, -ae f. [fem of lupus] as 1. A she-wolf. 2. A prostitute. This won’t surprise anyone who learned a bit of basic Latin alongside the stock Roman myths at school (but only if you went to that sort of school, naturally). For the rest of you poor plebs, consigned by the decrees of an all-wise State to a purely instrumental education, know then that the infant twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf on the banks of the Tiber, or, as Livy suggests (and more adventurous teachers in the more progressive Prep Schools might delicately hint), perhaps by the shepherd’s wife instead, Laurentia, whose notoriety among the locals had earned her the unflattering alias.

   All very instructive no doubt, full marks in your end of term essay Jones Minor – now just make sure you learn that Latin vocab, and no I don’t care if you are going skiing for the entire vacation, there will still be a test – but nothing new to our poet who, despite his now full-fledged foul mood, was as fully informed as any over-privileged modern schoolchild about his own country’s rather silly origin stories. It was just that the word lupa floating apparently without cause – but surely not an uncaused cause? – into his wine- and ire-soaked consciousness momentarily arrested his onward march. If he continued to follow this path he would, both metaphorically and literally, end up in Perdition. For this was the path out of the garden that ultimately (having traversed the headland via some vertiginous clifftop vistas)  led to Baiae. And  Baiae was as close a place to the mythical region of eternal punishments as it was possible for our poet to conceive. Never mind that the actual entrance to the Underworld was supposed to be back along the same road at Cumae, where the Sibyl kept her storied vigil over the grim stagnation of Lake Avernus. No, in the considered opinion of our delicately constituted philosopher-poet, Baiae was simply Hell on Earth.

  Of course, there is no such place as Hell, the Underworld, Tartarus, or [dear reader, insert your own preferred epithet here]. He knew that, our poet, of course.  All infantile mythology, much like the Romulus and Remus story. Of course, of course. But still. He paused, feet shuffling on shifting, cracking pebbles. Hesitation. He fancied he could almost see, almost hear, almost smell the place, though it was several miles off even as the black-headed gull flies. Baiae. That place. Perfume, money, sex – a perpetually sweet, sweaty, steamy rising, curling, twisting, ever-spreading, ever-renewing eruption, the heat of fervid humanity pouring into the air, polluting the environs, over-shadowing even the purity of his chaste garden. A shudder of revulsion. A shudder of suppressed longing. A conflict.

  Baiae. Where the lupae prowl by day and night. Beach parties, night clubs, casinos, booze, loud music, excess of every kind. An extrovert paradise right down the road from this, the bolthole of our most introspective of all introverts. Not that he could claim he didn’t crave such things from time to time (he wasn’t a saint, and definitely not a celibate), it was just that he had worked so hard over the years to cultivate the rational faculties that he couldn’t easily disconnect from his own cerebrum anymore; so many hours in the library, so much solitary poring over manuscripts. In short, all brain work every day made our poet a bit of a party pooper. It wasn’t his fault. Naturally a thinker, he now over-thought everything; naturally an introvert – like most writers, poets, philosophers, artists, scientists (you know, all the most interesting and creative people you’ll ever meet) – he generally found crowds and noise and idle chit-chat distracting, confusing and annoying in equal measure. And at Baiae there was nothing but distraction and confusion. That really was the whole point. Extroverts (you know, all the brash, in-your-face types you tend to meet at noisy parties, the ones who laugh loudest at their own jokes; in short, idiots) just lapped it up: all that gambling and partying, the constant barrage of noise and lights and drink and dancing and grinding hot bodies, a distraction from the emptiness of their souls. Lighten up, they told him, just relax and have fun. Let yourself live a little. Trouble was he lived too much in his own head; it was only on pleasant afternoons like this that he was even able to turn the volume down at all and take the smallest respite from that restless brain of his.

  But … and there is always a but isn’t there. No point lying to yourself, especially when you spend as much time in your own company as he did. He wasn’t a disembodied spirit (Epicurus had taught him such a thing was impossible anyway), nor even a brain in a vat: he had a body just as fleshily corporeal as the next man, he had adrenalin that demanded physical action; he had desires just as urgent as the next man’s, testosterone that demanded orgasmic release. Introverts need to let it all hang out sometimes too. At Baiae perhaps he could lose himself just for a while; perhaps he could swap bodies, if only metaphorically, and become someone else just for a while – an easygoing, fun-loving dude with an infectious laugh, a twinkle in his eye and a winning way with the ladies. A fantasy alter ego. The kind of self-confident, magnetic personality who made awkward, self-conscious people like him crazy with jealousy. Movie stars and rock gods, the aristocracy of extroverts, had their ancient Roman equivalents and he knew the type only too well: rich, louche, arrogant. Like Memmius and his cronies. He despised them for their superficiality; he desperately wanted to be like them. There were even times (like this one, however fleeting) when he would trade all his painstaking book-learning for one night of what his over-driven imagination supposed was available from the lupine temptresses who roamed the streets of Baiae.

*        *        *

Go to Chapter 6 Part 2


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