The Genius and the GoddessAldous Huxley
THE GENIUS and THE GODDESS
The Genius and the Goddess
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The Genius and the Goddess
“The trouble with fiction,” said John Rivers, “is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.”
“Never?” I questioned.
“Maybe from God’s point of view,” he conceded. “Never from ours. Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither. In the raw, existence is always one damned thing after another, and each of the damned things is simultaneously Thurber and Michelangelo, simultaneously Mickey Spillane and Maxwell and Thomas à Kempis. The criterion of reality is its intrinsic irrelevance.” And when I asked, “To what?” he waved a square brown hand in the direction of the bookshelves. “To the Best that has been Thought and Said,” he declaimed with mock portentousness. And then, “Oddly enough, the closest to reality are always the fictions that are supposed to be the least true.” He leaned over and touched the back of a battered copy of The Brothers Karamazov. “It makes so little sense that it’s almost real. Which is more than can be said for any of the academic kinds of fiction. Physics and chemistry fiction. History fiction. Philosophy fiction…” His accusing finger moved from Dirac to Toynbee, from Sorokin to Carnap. “More than can be said even for biography fiction. Here’s the latest specimen of the genre.”
From the table beside him he picked up a volume in a glossy blue dust jacket and held it up for my inspection.
“The Life of Henry Maartens “ I read out with no more interest than one accords to a household word. Then I remembered that, to John Rivers, the name had been something more and other than a household word. “You were his pupil, weren’t you?”
Rivers nodded without speaking.
“And this is the official biography?”
“The official fiction,” he amended. “An unforgettable picture of the Soap Opera scientist—you know the type—the moronic baby with the giant intellect; the sick genius battling indomitably against enormous odds; the lonely thinker who was yet the most affectionate of family men; the absent-minded professor with his head in the clouds but his heart in the right place. The facts, unfortunately, weren’t quite so simple.”
“You mean, the book’s inaccurate?”
“No, it’s all true—so far as it goes. After that, it’s all rubbish—or rather it’s non-existent. And maybe,” he added, “maybe it has to be non-existent. Maybe the total reality is always too undignified to be recorded, too senseless or too horrible to be left unfictionalized. All the same it’s exasperating, if one happens to know the facts; it’s even rather insulting, to be fobbed off with Soap Opera.”
“So you’re going to set the record straight?” I presumed.
“For the public? Heaven forbid.”
“For me, then. In private.”
“In private,” he repeated. “After all, why not?” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “A little orgy of reminiscence to celebrate one of your rare visits.”
“Anyone would think you were talking about a dangerous drug.”
“But it is a dangerous drug,” he answered. “One escapes into reminiscence as one escapes into gin or sodium amytal.”
“You forget,” I said, “I’m a writer, and the Muses are the daughters of Memory.”
“And God,” he added quickly, “is not their brother. God isn’t the son of Memory; He’s the son of Immediate Experience. You can’t worship a spirit in spirit, unless you do it now. Wallowing in the past may be good literature. As wisdom, it’s hopeless. Time Regained is Paradise Lost, and Time Lost is Paradise Regained. Let the dead bury their dead. If you want to live at every moment as it presents itself, you’ve got to die to every other moment. That’s the most important thing I learned from Helen.”
The name evoked for me a pale young face framed in the square opening of a bell of dark, almost Egyptian hair—evoked, too, the great golden columns of Baalbek, with the blue sky and the snows of the Lebanon behind them. I was an archaeologist in those days, and Helen’s father was my boss. It was at Baalbek that I had proposed to her and been rejected.
“If she’d married me,” I said, “would I have learned it?”
“Helen practiced what she always refrained from preaching,” Rivers answered. “It was difficult not to learn from her.”
“And what about my writing, what about those daughters of Memory?”
“There would have been a way to make the best of both worlds.”
“A synthesis, a third position subtending the other two. Actually, of course, you can never make the best of one world, unless in the process you’ve learned to make the best of the other. Helen even managed to make the best of life while she was dying.”
In my mind’s eye Baalbek gave place to the campus of Berkeley, and instead of the noiselessly swinging bell of dark hair there was a coil of gray; instead of a girl’s face I saw the thin drawn features of an aging woman. She must have been ill, I reflected, even then.
“I was in Athens when she died,” I said aloud.
“I remember.” And then, “I wish you’d been here,” he added. “For her sake—she was very fond of you. And, of course, for your sake too. Dying’s an art, and at our age we ought to be learning it. It helps to have seen someone who really knew how. Helen knew how to die because she knew how to live—to live now and here and for the greater glory of God. And that necessarily entails dying to there and then and tomorrow and one’s own miserable little self. In the process of living as one ought to live, Helen had been dying by daily installments. When the final reckoning came, there was practically nothing to pay. Incidentally,” Rivers went on after a little silence, “I was pretty close to the final reckoning last spring. In fact, if it weren’t for penicillin, I wouldn’t be here. Pneumonia, the old man’s friend. Now they resuscitate you, so that you can live to enjoy your arteriosclerosis or your cancer of the prostate…. So, you see, it’s all entirely posthumous. Everybody’s dead except me, and I’m living on borrowed time. If I set the record straight, it’ll be as a ghost talking about ghosts. And anyhow this is Christmas Eve; so a ghost story is quite in order. Besides, you’re a very old friend and even if you do put it all in a novel, does it really matter?”
His large lined face lit up with an expression of affectionate irony.
“If it does matter,” I assured him, “I won’t.”
This time he laughed outright.
“The strongest oaths are straw to be fire i’ the blood,” he quoted. “I’d rather entrust my daughters to Casanova than my secrets to a novelist. Literary fires are hotter even than sexual ones. And literary oaths are even strawier than the matrimonial or monastic varieties.”
I tried to protest; but he refused to listen.
“If I still wanted to keep it secret,” he said, “I wouldn’t tell you. But when you do publish, please remember the usual footnote. You know—any resemblance to any character living or dead is purely coincidental. But purely! And now let’s get back to those Maartenses. I’ve got a picture somewhere.” He hoisted himself out of his chair, walked over to the desk and opened a drawer. “All of us together—Henry and Katy and the children and me. And by a miracle,” he added, after a moment of rustling among the papers in the drawer, “it’s where it ought to be.”
He handed me the f
aded enlargement of a snap-shot. It showed three adults standing in front of a wooden summerhouse—a small, thin man with white hair and a beaked nose, a young giant in shirt sleeves and, between them, fair-haired, laughing, broad-shouldered and deep-bosomed, a splendid Valkyrie incongruously dressed in a hobble skirt. At their feet sat two children, a boy of nine or ten and a pigtailed elder sister in her early teens.
“How old he looks!” was my first comment. “Old enough to be his children’s grandfather.”
“And infantile enough, at fifty-six, to be Katy’s baby boy.”
“Rather a complicated incest.”
“But it worked,” Rivers insisted, “it worked so well that it had come to be a regular symbiosis. He lived on her. And she was there to be lived on—incarnate maternity.”
I looked again at the photograph.
“What a fascinating mixture of styles! Maartens is pure Gothic. His wife’s a Wagnerian heroine. The children are straight out of Mrs. Molesworth. And you, you…” I looked up at the square, leathery face that confronted me from the other side of the fireplace, then back at the snapshot. “I’d forgotten what a beauty you used to be. A Roman copy of Praxiteles.”
“Couldn’t you make me an original?” he pleaded.
I shook my head.
“Look at the nose,” I said. “Look at the modeling of the jaw. That isn’t Athens; that’s Herculaneum. But luckily girls aren’t interested in art history. For all practical amorous purposes you were the real thing, the genuine Greek god.”
Rivers made a wry face.
“I may have looked the part,” he said. “But if you think I could act it…” He shook his head. “No Ledas for me, no Daphnes, no Europas. In those days, remember, I was still the unmitigated product of a deplorable upbringing. A Lutheran minister’s son and, after the age of twelve, a widowed mother’s only consolation. Yes, her only consolation, in spite of the fact that she regarded herself as a devout Christian. Little Johnny took first, second and third place; God was just an Also Ran. And of course the only consolation had no choice but to become the model son, the star pupil, the indefatigable scholarship winner, sweating his way through college and post-graduate school with no spare time for anything more subtle than football or the Glee Club; more enlightening than the Reverend Wigman’s weekly sermon.”
“But did the girls allow you to ignore them? With a face like that?” I pointed at the curly-headed athlete in the snapshot.
Rivers was silent, then answered with another question.
“Did your mother ever tell you that the most wonderful wedding present a man could bring his bride was his virginity?”
“Well, mine did. And she did it, what’s more, on her knees, in the course of an extemporary prayer. She was a great one for extemporary praying,” he added parenthetically. “Better even than my father had been. The sentences flowed more evenly, the language was more genuinely sham-antique. She could discuss our financial situation or reprimand me for my reluctance to eat tapioca pudding, in the very phrases of the Epistle to the Hebrews. As a piece of linguistic virtuosity, it was quite amazing. Unfortunately I couldn’t think of it in those terms. The performer was my mother and the occasion solemn. Everything that was said, while she was talking to God, had to be taken with a religious seriousness. Particularly when it was connected with the great unmentionable subject. At twenty-eight, believe it or not, I still had that wedding present for my hypothetical bride.”
There was a silence.
“My poor John,” I said at last.
He shook his head.
“Actually it was my poor mother. She had it all worked out so perfectly. An instructorship in my old university, then an assistant professorship, then a professorship. There would never be any need for me to leave home. And when I was around forty, she’d arrange a marriage for me with some wonderful Lutheran girl who would love her like her own mother. But for the grace of God, there went John Rivers—down the drain. But the grace of God was forthcoming—with a vengeance, as it turned out. One fine morning, a few weeks after I had my Ph.D., I had a letter from Henry Maartens. He was at St. Louis then, working on atoms. Needed another research assistant, had heard good reports of me from my professor, couldn’t offer more than a scandalously small salary—but would I be interested? For a budding physicist it was the opportunity of a lifetime. For my poor mother it was the end of everything. Earnestly, agonizingly, she prayed over it. To her eternal credit, God told her to let me go.
“Ten days later a taxi deposited me on the Maartenses’ doorstep. I remember standing there in a cold sweat, trying to screw up my courage to ring the bell. Like a delinquent schoolboy who has an appointment with the Headmaster. The first elation over my wonderful good fortune had long since evaporated, and for the last few days at home, and during all the endless hours of the journey, I had been thinking only of my own inadequacy. How long would it take a man like Henry Maartens to see through a man like me? A week? A day? More likely an hour! He’d despise me; I’d be the laughingstock of the laboratory. And things would be just as bad outside the laboratory. Indeed, they might even be worse. The Maartenses had asked me to be their guest until I could find a place of my own. How extraordinarily kind! But also how fiendishly cruel! In the austerely cultured atmosphere of their home I should reveal myself for what I was—shy, stupid, hopelessly provincial. But meanwhile, the Headmaster was waiting. I gritted my teeth and pushed the button. The door was opened by one of those ancient colored retainers in an old-fashioned play. You know, the kind that was born before Abolition and has been with Miss Belinda ever since. The performance was on the corny side; but it was a sympathetic part and, though she dearly loved to ham it up, Beulah was not merely a treasure; she was, as I soon discovered, well along the road to sainthood. I explained who I was and, as I talked, she looked me over. I must have seemed satisfactory; for there and then she adopted me as a long lost member of the family, a kind of Prodigal Son just back from the husks. ‘I’ll go make you a sandwich and a nice cup of coffee,’ she insisted, and adding, ‘They’re all in here.’ She opened a door and pushed me through it. I braced myself for the Headmaster and a barrage of culture. But what I actually walked into was something which, if I had seen it fifteen years later, I might have mistaken for a parody, in the minor key, of the Marx Brothers. I was in a large, extremely untidy living room. On the sofa lay a white-haired man with his shirt collar unbuttoned, apparently dying—for his face was livid, his breath came and went with a kind of wheezing rattle. Close beside him in a rocking chair—her left hand on his forehead and a copy of William James’s Pluralistic Universe in her right—the most beautiful woman I had ever seen was quietly reading. On the floor were two children—a small red-headed boy playing with a clockwork train and a girl of fourteen with long black legs, lying on her stomach and writing poetry (I could see the shape of the stanzas) with a red pencil. All were so deeply absorbed in what they were engaged upon—playing or composing, reading or dying—that for at least half a minute my presence in the room remained completely unnoticed. I coughed, got no reaction, coughed again. The small boy raised his head, smiled at me politely but without interest, and returned to his train. I waited another ten seconds; then, in desperation, advanced into the room. The recumbent poetess blocked my path. I stepped over her. ‘Pardon me,’ I murmured. She paid no attention; but the reader of William James heard and looked up. Over the top of the Pluralistic Universe her eyes were brilliantly blue. ‘Are you the man about the gas furnace?’ she asked. Her face was so radiantly lovely that for a moment I couldn’t say a word. I could only shake my head. ‘Silly!’ said the small boy. ‘The gas man has a mustache.’ ‘I’m Rivers,’ I finally managed to mumble. ‘Rivers?’ she repeated blankly. ‘Rivers? Oh, Rivers!’ There was a sudden dawn of recognition. ‘I’m so glad…’ But before she could finish the sentence, the man with the death rattle opened a pair of ghastly eyes, made a noise like an indrawn war whoop and, jumping u
p, rushed toward the open window. ‘Look out!’ the small boy shouted. ‘Look out!’ There was a crash. ‘Oh, Christ!’ he added in a tone of contained despair. A whole Grand Central Station lay in ruins, reduced to its component blocks. ‘Christ!’ the child repeated; and when the poetess told him he mustn’t say Christ, ‘I’ll say something really bad,’ he menaced. ‘I’ll say…’ His lips moved in silent blasphemy.
“From the window, meanwhile, came the dreadful sound of a man being slowly hanged.
“‘Excuse me,’ said the beautiful woman. She rose, put down her book and hurried to the rescue. There was a metallic clatter. The hem of her skirt overturned a signal. The small boy uttered a shriek of rage. ‘You fool.’ he yelled. ‘You…you elephant.’
“‘Elephants,’ said the poetess didactically, ‘always look where they’re going.’ Then she screwed her head round and, for the first time, acknowledged my existence. ‘They’ve forgotten all about you,’ she explained to me in a tone of wearily contemptuous superiority. ‘That’s how things are around here.’
“Over by the window the gradual hanging was still in progress. Doubled up, as though someone had hit him below the belt, the white-haired man was fighting for air—fighting what looked and sounded like a losing battle. Beside him stood the goddess, patting his back and murmuring words of encouragement. I was appalled. This was the most terrible thing I had ever seen. A hand plucked at the cuff of my trousers. I turned and found the poetess looking up at me. She had a narrow, intense little face with gray eyes, set wide apart and a size too large. ‘Gloom,’ she said. ‘I need three words to rhyme with gloom. I’ve got room—that fits all right. And I’ve got womb—which is simply gorgeous. But what about catacomb…?’ She shook her head; then, frowning at her paper, she read aloud. ‘The something gloom Of my soul’s deep and dreary catacomb. I don’t like it, do you?’ I had to admit that I didn’t. ‘And yet it’s exactly what I want to say,’ she went on. I had a brain wave. ‘What about tomb?’ Her face lit up with pleasure and excitement. But of course, of course! What a fool she had been! The red pencil started to scribble at a furious rate. ‘The something gloom,’ she declaimed triumphantly, ‘Of my soul’s irremediable tomb.’ I must have looked dubious, for she hastily asked me if I thought irrevocable tomb would be better. Before I could answer there was another, louder sound of strangling. I glanced toward the window, then back at the poetess. ‘Isn’t there anything we can do?’ I whispered. The girl shook her head. ‘I looked it up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica,’ she answered. ‘It says there that asthma never shortened anybody’s life.’ And then, seeing that I was still disturbed, she shrugged her bony little shoulders and said, “You kind of get used to it.’”