Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A hideous commerce

"It looks to me as if Wokulski is . . . in love, as it were."

The doctor stopped dead on the pavement and, leaning on his stick, began laughing in a way that attracted the attention of the (fortunately) few passers-by: "Ha ha! Have you only just made that monumental discovery? Ha ha! This old fellow pleases me . . ."

It was a ridiculous joke. However, I bit my lip and retorted. "It was easy to make that discovery, even for someone . . . less skilled than I am (I think I caught him there!). But I prefer being cautious even in supposing things, Mr Szuman . . . In any case, I never dreamed that such an ordinary thing as love could bring about such havoc in man."

"You are mistaken, old man," the doctor replied with a gesture. "Love is an ordinary thing in nature and even to God, if you like. But your stupid civilisation, based on Roman views long since dead and buried, on the interests of the papacy, troubadours, asceticism, the caste system and such-like rubbish has turned a natural feeling into — guess what? — a disease of the nervous system! Your supposedly chivalrous and romantic love is nothing more than a hideous commerce based on dishonesty, which is very properly punished by the lifelong imprisonment known as marriage . . . Woe to those who bring their hearts to such a market-place! How much talent, even life it devours . . . I know this very well," he went on, breathless with rage, "for although I'm a Jew and will remain one till the day I die, I was nevertheless brought up among your people and was even engaged to marry a Christian girl . . . Well, and they forced us to make so many compromises in our plans, they watched over us so tenderly in the name of religion, morality, tradition and goodness knows what else — that she died and I tried to poison myself . . . A man as clever as I am, and as bald."

He stopped again on the sidewalk. "Believe me, Ignacy," he concluded in a hoarse voice, "you will not find anything as vile as human beings, not even among the animals. In Nature, the male belongs to the female who pleases him and whom he pleases. So there are no idiots among the animals. But among us! I am a Jew, so am not allowed to love a Christian woman . . . He is in trade, so he has no right to a well-born lady . . . And you, who have no money, have no right at all to any woman whatsoever. Your civilisation is rotten! I'd gladly perish, provided its ruins came down on top of me . . . "

— from The Doll, by Bolesław Prus.

Ah, love. Well, you think it's about love, but then it's about politics. But for Ignacy, everything is about politics, even when it isn't.

I'm about halfway through and find myself fully invested in these characters and their lots, despite the overuse of ellipses (as a punctuation mark, I mean — see excerpt above — not a narrative device). It fills me with horror that Wokulski might be led to ruin by love, or something like it.

Izabela to this point is not quite the cold-hearted bitch I was led to anticipate; she is oblivious to some concerns and at times thoughtless, but this is because she is a product of the class system, not because she is inherently evil.

There's a flashback in which there's much drinking and Wokulski agrees to jump off a bridge, which is reminiscent of an early scene in War and Peace, where the young pups dare each other to drink out on the window ledge. It's funny and life-affirming and mildly horrifying (the scene, I mean, but maybe also the story in general), but seen through Ignacy's eyes, it's all political.

My love is away this week, so I'm off to bed with my book.
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