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The Rosy Crucifixion 3 - Nexus

Henry Miller



  Woof! Woof woof! Woof! Woof!

  Barking in the night. Barking, barking. I shriek but no one answers. I scream but there’s not even an echo.

  Which do you want—the East of Xerxes or the East of Christ?

  Alone—with eczema of the brain.

  Alone at last. How marvelous! Only it is not what I expected it to be. If only I were alone with God!

  Woof! Woof! woof!

  Eyes closed, I summon her image. There it is, floating in the dark, a mask emerging from the spindrift: the Tilla Durieux bouche, like a bow; white, even teeth; eyes dark with mascara, the lids a viscous, glistening blue; hair streaming wild, black as ebony. The actress from the Carpathians and the roof-tops of Vienna. Risen like Venus from the flatlands of Brooklyn.

  Woof! Woof woof! Woof! Woof!

  I shout, but it sounds for all the world like a whisper.

  My name is Isaac Dust. I am in Dante’s fifth heaven. Like Strindberg in his delirium, I repeat: What does it matter? Whether one is the only one, or whether one has a rival, what does it matter?

  Why do these bizarre names suddenly come to mind? All class-mates from the dear old Alma Mater: Morton Schnadig, William Marvin, Israel Siegel, Bernard Pistner, Louis Schneider, Clarence Donohue, William Overend, John Kurtz, Pat McCaffrey, William Korb, Arthur Convissar, Sally Liebowitz, Frances Glanty … Not one of them has ever raised his head. Stricken from the ledger. Scotched like vipers.

  Are you there, comrades?

  No answer.

  Is that you, dear August, raising your head in the gloom? Yes, it is Strindberg, the Strindberg with two horns protruding from his forehead. Le cocu magnifique.

  In some happy time—when? how distant? what planet?—I used to move from wall to wall greeting this one and that, all old friends: Leon Bakst, Whistler, Lovis Corinth, Breughel the Elder, Botticelli, Bosch, Giotto, Cimabue, Piero della Francesca, Grunewald, Holbein, Lucas Cranach, Van Gogh, Utrillo, Gauguin, Piranesi, Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige—and the Wailing Wall. Goya too, and Turner. Each one had something precious to impart. But particularly Tilla Durieux, she with the eloquent, sensual lips dark as rose petals.

  The walls are bare now. Even if they were crowded with masterpieces I would recognize nothing. Darkness has closed in. Like Balzac, I live with imaginary paintings. Even the frames are imaginary.

  Isaac Dust, born of the dust and returning to dust. Dust to dust. Add a codicil for old times’ sake.

  Anastasia, alias Hegoroboru, alias Bertha Filigree of Lake Tahoe-Titicaca and the Imperial Court of the Czars, is temporarily in the Observation Ward. She went there of her own accord, to find out if she were in her right mind or not. Saul barks in his delirium, believing he is Isaac Dust. We are snow-bound-in a hall bedroom with a private sink and twin beds. Lightning flashes intermittently. Count Bruga, that darling of a puppet, reposes on the bureau surrounded by Javanese and Tibetan idols. He has the leer of a madman quaffing a bowl of sterno. His wig, made of purple strings, is surmounted by a miniature hat, a la Boheme, imported from la Galerie Dufayel. His back rests against a few choice volumes deposited with us by Stasia before taking off for the asylum. From left to right they read—

  The Imperial Orgy—The Vatican Swindle—A Season in Hell—Death in Venice—Anathema—A Hero of our Time—The Tragic Sense of Life—The Devil’s Dictionary—November Boughs—Beyond the Pleasure Principle—Lysistrata—Marius the Epicurean—The Golden Ass—Jude the Obscure—The Mysterious Stranger—Peter Whiffle—The Little Flowers—Virginibus Puerisque—Queen Mab—The Great God Pan—The Travels of Marco Polo—Songs of Bilitis—The Unknown Life of Jesus—Tristram Shandy—The Crock of Gold—Black Bryony—The Root and the Flower.

  Only a single lacuna: Rozanov’s Metaphysics of Sex.

  In her own handwriting (on a slip of butcher’s paper) I find the following, a quotation obviously, from one of the volumes: That strange thinker, N. Federov, a Russian of the Russians, will found his own original form of anarchism, one hostile to the State.

  Were I to show this to Kronski he would run immediately to the bughouse and offer it as proof. Proof of what? Proof that Stasia is in her right mind.

  Yesterday was it? Yes, yesterday, about four in the morning, while walking to the subway station to look for Mona, who should I spy sauntering leisurely through the drifting snow but Mona and her wrestler friend Jim Driscoll. You would think, to see them, that they were looking for violets in a golden meadow. No thought of snow or ice, no concern for the polar blasts from the river, no fear of God or man. Just strolling along, laughing, talking, humming. Free as meadow-larks.

  Hark, hark, the lark at heaven’s gate sings!

  I followed them a distance, almost infected myself by their utter nonchalance. Suddenly I took an oblique left turn in the direction of Osiecki’s flat. His chambers, I should say. Sure enough, the lights were on and the pianola softly giving out morceaux choisis de Dohnanyi.

  Hail to you, sweet lice, I thought, and passed on. A mist was rising over toward Gowanus Canal. Probably a glacier melting.

  Arriving home I found her creaming her face.

  Where in God’s name have you been? she demands, almost accusingly.

  Are you back long? I counter.

  Hours ago.

  Strange. I could have sworn that I left here only twenty minutes ago. Maybe I’ve been walking in my sleep. It’s funny, but I had a notion I saw you and Jim Driscoll walking arm in arm…

  Val, you must be ill.

  No, just inebriated. I mean … hallucinated.

  She puts a cold hand on my brow, feels my pulse. Everything normal, apparently. It baffles her. Why do I invent such stories? Just to torment her? Isn’t there enough to worry about, with Stasia in the asylum and the rent overdue? I ought to have more consideration.

  I walk over to the alarm clock and point to the hands. Six o’clock.

  I know, she says.

  So it wasn’t you I saw just a few minutes ago?

  She looks at me as if I were on the verge of dementia.

  Nothing to worry about, dearie, I chirp. I’ve been drinking champagne all night. I’m sure now it wasn’t you I saw—it was your astral body. Pause. Anyway, Stasia’s O.K. I just had a long talk with one of the internes…

  You … ?

  Yes, for want of anything better to do I thought I’d run over and see how she was getting along. I brought her some Charlotte russe.

  You should get to bed, Val, you’re exhausted. Pause. If you want to know why I’m so late I’ll tell you. I just left Stasia. I got her out about three hours ago. She began to chuckle—or was it to cackle? I’ll tell you all about it to-morrow. It’s a long story.

  To her amazement I replied: Don’t bother, I heard all about it a little while ago.

  We switched out the lights and crawled into bed. I could hear her laughing to herself.

  As a good-night fillip I whispered: Bertha Filigree of Lake Titicaca.

  Often, after a session with Spengler or Elie Faure, I would throw myself on the bed fully clothed and, instead of musing about ancient cultures, I would find myself groping through a labyrinthian world of fabrications. Neither of them seems capable of telling the truth, even about such a simple matter as going to the toilet. Stasia, an essentially truthful soul, acquired the habit in order to please Mona. Even in that fanciful tale about being a Romanoff bastard there was a grain of truth. With her it’s never a lie out of the whole cloth, as with Mona. Moreover, should one confront her with the truth, she does not throw an hysterical fit or stalk out of the room on stilts. No, she simply breaks into a broad grin which gradually softens into the pleasing smile of an angelic child. There are mome
nts when I believe I can get somewhere with Stasia. But just when I sense that the time is ripe, like an animal protecting her cub, Mona whisks her off.

  One of the strangest blanks in our intimate conversations, for now and then we have the most prolonged, seemingly sincere talk-fests, one of these unaccountable gaps, I say, has to do with childhood. How they played, where, with whom, remains a complete mystery. From the cradle, apparently, they sprang into womanhood. Never is there mention of a childhood friend or of a wonderful lark they enjoyed; never do they talk of a street they loved or a park they played in or a game they enjoyed. I’ve asked them point-blank: Do you know how to skate? Can you swim? Did you ever play jacks? Yes indeedy, they can do all these things and more. Why not? Yet they never permit themselves to slip back into the past. Never do they suddenly, as happens in animated conversation, recall some strange or wonderful experience connected with childhood. Now and then one or the other will mention that she once broke an arm or sprained an ankle, but where, when? Again and again I endeavor to lead them back, gently, coaxingly, as one might lead a horse to the stable, but in vain. Details bore them. What matter, they ask, when it happened or where? Very well, then, about face! I switch the talk to Russia or Roumania, hoping to detect a glint or a gleam of recognition. I do it skillfully too, beginning by way of Tasmania or Patagonia and only gradually and obliquely working my way toward Russia, Roumania, Vienna and the flatlands of Brooklyn. As if they hadn’t the slightest suspicion of my game, they too will suddenly begin talking about strange places, Russia and Roumania included, but as though they were recounting something which had been related to them by a stranger or picked up in a travel book. Stasia, a little more artful, may even pretend to give me a clue. She may take it into her head, for example, to relate some spurious incident out of Dostoievsky, trusting that I have a weak memory or that, even if it be a good one, I cannot possibly remember the thousands of incidents which crowd Dostoievsky’s voluminous works. And how can I myself be certain that she is not giving me the genuine Dostoievsky? Because I have an excellent memory for the aura of things read. It is impossible for me not to recognize a false Dostoievskyan touch. However, to draw her out, I pretend to recall the incident she is relating; I nod my head in agreement, laugh, clap my hands, anything she wishes, but I never let on that I know she is falsifying. Now and then, however, I will remind her, in the same spirit of play, of a trifle she has glossed over or a distortion she has created; I will even argue about it at length if she pretends that she has related the incident faithfully. And all the while Mona sits there, listening attentively, aware neither of truth nor falsity, but happy as a bird because we are talking about her idol, her god, Dostoievsky.

  What a charming, what a delightful world it can be, this world of lies and of falsification, when there is nothing better to do, nothing at stake. Aren’t we wonderful, we jolly, bloody liars? A pity Dostoievsky himself isn’t with us, Mona will sometimes exclaim. As if he invented all those mad people, all those crazy scenes which flood his novels. I mean, invented them for his own pleasure, or because he was a natural born fool and liar. Never once does it dawn on them that they may be the mad characters in a book which life is, writing with invisible ink.

  Not strange therefore that nearly every one, male or female, whom Mona admires is mad, or that every one she detests is a fool. Yet, when she chooses to pay me a compliment she will always call me a fool. You’re such a dear fool, Val. Meaning that I am great enough, complex enough, in her estimation at least, to belong to the world of Dostoievsky. At times, when she gets to raving about my unwritten books, she will even go so far as to say that I am another Dostoievsky. A pity I can’t throw an epileptic fit now and then. That would really give me the necessary standing. What happens, unfortunately, what breaks the spell, is that I all too quickly degenerate into a bourgeois. In other words I become too inquisitive, too picayune, too intolerant. Dostoievsky, according to Mona, never displayed the least interest in facts. (One of those near truths which make one wince sometimes.) No, to believe her, Dostoievsky was always in the clouds—or else buried in the depths. He never bothered to swim on the surface. He took no thought of gloves or muffs or overcoats. Nor did he pry into women’s purses in search of names and addresses. He lived only in the imagination.

  Stasia, now, had her own opinion about Dostoievsky, his way of life, his method of working. Despite her vagaries, she was, after all, a little closer to reality. She knew that puppets are made of wood or papier-mache’, not just imagination. And she was not too certain but that Dostoievsky too might have had his bourgeois side. What she relished particularly in Dostoievsky was the diabolical element. To her the Devil was real. Evil was real. Mona, on the other hand, seemed unaffected by the evil in Dostoievsky. To her it was just another element of his imagination. Nothing in books frightened her. Almost nothing in life frightened her either, for that matter. Which is why, perhaps, she walked through fire unharmed. But for Stasia, when visited by a strange mood, even to partake of breakfast could be an ordeal. She had a nose for evil, she could detect its presence even in cold cereals. To Stasia the Devil was an omnipresent Being ever in wait for his victim. She wore amulets to ward off the evil powers; she made certain signs on entering a strange house, or repeated incantations in strange tongues. All of which Mona smiled on indulgently, thinking it delicious of Stasia to be so primitive, so superstitious. It’s the Slav in her, she would say.

  Now that the authorities had placed Stasia in Mona’s hands it behooved us to view the situation with greater clarity, and to provide a more certain, a more peaceful mode of life for this complicated creature. According to Mona’s tearful story, it was only with the greatest reluctance that Stasia was released from confinement. What she told them about her friend—as well as about herself—only the Devil may hope to know. Over a period of weeks, and only by the most adroit maneuvering, did I succeed in piecing together the jig-saw puzzle which she had constructed of her interview with the physician in charge. Had I nothing else to go on I would have said that they both belonged in the asylum. Fortunately I had received another version of the interview, and that unexpectedly, from none other than Kronski. Why he had interested himself in the case I don’t know. Mona had no doubt given the authorities his name—as that of family physician. Possibly she had called him up in the middle of the night and, with sobs in her voice, begged him to do something for her beloved friend. What she omitted telling me, at any rate, was that it was Kronski who had secured Stasia’s release, that Stasia was in nobody’s care, and that a word from him (to the authorities) might prove calamitous. This last was pish-posh, and I took it as such. The truth probably was that the wards were full to overflowing. In the back of my head was the resolution to visit the hospital myself one fine day and find out precisely what occurred. (Just for the record.) I was in no great hurry. I felt that the present situation was but a prelude, or a presage, of things to come.

  In the interim I took to dashing over to the Village whenever the impulse seized me. I wandered all over the place, like a stray dog. When I came to a lamp post I lifted my hind leg and pissed on it. Woof woof! Woof!

  Thus it was that I would often find myself standing outside the Iron Cauldron, at the railing which fenced off the mangy grass-plot now knee-deep with black snow, to observe the comings and goings. The two tables nearest the window were Mona’s. I watched her as she trotted back and forth in the soft candle light, passing out the food, a cigarette always glued to her lips, her face wreathed in smiles as she greeted her clients or accepted their orders. Now and then Stasia would take a seat at the table, her back always to the window, elbows on the table, head in hands. Usually she would continue to sit there after the last client had left. Mona would then join her. Judging from the expression on the latter’s face, it was always an animated conversation they were conducting. Sometimes they laughed so heartily they were doubled up. If, in such a mood, one of their favorites attempted to join them, he or she would be brushed off like
a bottle fly.

  Now what could these two dear creatures be talking about that was so very, very absorbing? And so excruciatingly humorous? Answer me that and I will write the history of Russia for you in one sitting.

  The moment I suspected they were making ready to leave I would take to my heels. Leisurely and wistfully I’d meander, poking my head into one dive after another, until I came to Sheridan Square. At one corner of the Square, and always lit up like an old-fashioned saloon, was Minnie Douchebag’s hangout. Here I knew the two of them would eventually wind up. All I waited for was to make sure they took their seats. Then a glance at the clock, estimating that in two or three hours one of them at least would be returning to the lair. It was comforting, on casting a last glance in their direction, to observe that they were already the center of solicitous attention. Comforting—what a word!—to know that they would receive the protection of the dear creatures who understood them so well and ever rallied to their support. It was amusing also to reflect, on entering the subway, that with a slight rearrangement of clothing even a Bertillon expert might have difficulty deciding which was boy and which girl. The boys were always ready to die for the girls—and vice versa. Weren’t they all in the same rancid piss-pot to which every pure and decent soul is consigned? Such dearies they were, the whole gang. Darlings, really. The drags they could think up, gracious! Every one of them, the boys particularly, was a born artist. Even those shy little creatures who hid in a corner to chew their nails.

  Was it from contact with this atmosphere in which love and mutual understanding ruled that Stasia evolved the notion that all was not well between Mona and myself? Or was it due to the sledge-hammer blows I delivered in moments of truth and candor?

  You shouldn’t be accusing Mona of deceiving you and lying to you, she says to me one evening. How we happened to be alone I can’t imagine. Possibly she was expecting Mona to appear any moment.

  What would you rather have me accuse her of? I replied, wondering what next.