A Well-Constructed Work
by CESARE PAVESE
The diaries of Cesare Pavese were written in Italy, starting in 1935 until 1941. In 1935 Pavese was an antifascist and was arrested that year from having letters from a political prisoners. He was sent into exile in Southern Italy. Once back in Turin, Pavese worked for a publisher as an editor and translator. All the while, he wrote his diary. These entries comprise a treasure trove of insights into the relationships between man, art, and woman. When he is a misogynist he is kinder than any before him, when he is naive he is consistently instructive in his ignorance. Most of all, he is so perceptive that his private writing, never intended for publication, ascends to the greatest heights of literature. The following was translated from the Italian by A.E. Murch.
Why am I forever insisting that the subject in my poem must be treated exhaustively, ethically, critically? I, who cannot feel it is right for one man to judge another? This pretension of mind is nothing more than a vulgar desire to "have my say." Which is far from dispensing justice. Do I live justly? Does justice mean anything to me in human affairs? Then why claim to pass judgment on matters of poetry?
If there is any human figure in my poetry, it is that of a truant running back, full of joy, to his own village, where to him everything is picturesque and full of color; a man who likes to work as little as he can; finding great pleasure in the simplest things; always expansive, good-natured, set in his views; incapable of deep suffering; happy to follow nature and enjoy a woman, but also glad to be free and on his own; ready every morning to start life afresh. As in Mari del Sud.
Of the two things, writing poetry and studying, it is the second that gives me greater and more constant comfort. However, I do not forget that my pleasure in studying is always with a view to writing poetry. But, fundamentally, writing poetry is an ever-open wound whence the health-giving life blood drains away.
Today my imprisonment ends.
When a man is in such a state as I am, there is nothing left for him to do but examine his conscience.
I have no grounds for discarding my own firm conviction that whatever happens to a man is conditioned by his whole past. In short, it is deserved. Evidently, I must have been an utter fool to find myself at this point.
First, moral irresponsibility. Have I ever really asked myself what I ought to do according to conscience? I have always followed sentimental, hedonistic impulses. Of that there is no question. Even my period as a woman-hater (1930-1934) was in essence self-indulgent. I wanted to avoid becoming involved and the pose pleased me.How spineless that attitude was soon became apparent. And even when my work is concerned, have I ever been anything but a hedonist? I enjoyed working feverishly by fits and starts, under the spur of ambition, but I was afraid, too; afraid of getting tied up. I have never really worked and in fact I have no skill in any occupation.
Another fault is quite apparent. I have never been a single-minded, easygoing sort of fellow who enjoys his pleasures without a second thought. I haven't the nerve. I have always flattered myself with the illusion that I am a man of moral sensibility because I spend delicious moments - that's the right term-inventing conscientious scruples without pluck enough to solve them by action. I have no wish to resurrect the complacency that at one time I felt at this moral cowardice from aesthetic motives - hoping it meant my career would be that of a geniuis - but I still have not yet passed that stage.
Having reached such utter abjectness, morally, the thought seems to me that there should be material abjectness, too. How fitting it would be if, for example, my shoes were in holes!
Only so can I explain my actual suicidal urge in life. I know that I am forever condemned to think of suicide when graced with no matter what difficulty or grief. It terrifies me. My basic principle is suicide, never committed, never to be committed, but the thought of it caresses my sensibility.
The self-destroyer is a different type, more despairing but more practical. He has a compulsion to discover every fault, every baseness in his own nature; then he views these tendencies so leniently that they become mere nothings. He looks for more, enjoys them, finds them intoxicating. He is more sure of himself than any conqueror of the past, and he knows that the thread connecting him with tomorrow, with the potentialities of life, with a prodigious future, is a stronger cable - when it comes to the ultimate strain - than any faith or integrity.
He says: "She told me, one day, how she would have treated me. We were at that uneasy stage when nothing had happened, but was likely to. I made her talk about her past, so eager was I to know all I could about her, to amplify my daydreams.
"She was talking of a nice young man who made a pass at her in a train. She described him as common and persistent, and without much trouble she infatuated him. With words and actions. (She went on a trip with me, too.) Then she broke off, giving him a false name.
"And the young man had written asking her to marry him."
Mistakes are always initial.
A woman, unless she is an idiot, sooner or later meets a piece of human wreckage and tries to rescue him. She sometimes succeeds. But a woman, unless she is an idiot, sooner or later finds a sane, healthy man and makes a wreck of him. She always succeeds.
One stops being a child when one realizes that telling one's trouble does not make it better.
Surely all his destiny is revealed when a child of three, while being dressed, wonders anxiously how he will manage to dress himself when he is grown up, he who does not know how?
To possess something or someone, we must not surrender ourselves to it completely or lose our heads; in short, we must remain superior to it. But it is a law of life that we can enjoy only what we can give ourselves up to completely. Those who invented the love of God were pretty shrewd; there is nothing else we can possess and enjoy at the same time.
In love, all that counts is having a woman in one's home, in one's bed. All the rest is a pack of nonsense, pernicious nonsense.
The most commonplace kind of love is fed by what one does not know about the loved one. But what can surpass a love based on what one does know?
I knew an idiot who refused to learn the rules of the game when he was young, lost as he was in fantasies. Now the fantasies are vanishing and the game is shattering him.
Problem: woman is she the prize of the strong or the prop of the weak, depending on how the men want her?
The irony of life: woman gives herself as a prize to the weak and as a prop to the strong. And no man ever has what he should have.
I should be perfectly happy if it were not for the fleeting pain of trying to probe the secret of that happiness, so as to be able to find it again tomorrow and always. But perhaps I am confused and my happiness lies in that pain. Once more I find myself hoping that, tomorrow, the memory will suffice.
Today you have talked too much.
Try to do someone a good turn. You will soon see how you will hate his radiant, grateful face.
Actually, I am living like the most contemptible wastrels that ever roused my scorn when I was young.
Those philosophers who believe in the absolute logic of truth have never had to discuss it on close terms with a woman.
It is a fine thing when a young fellow of eighteen or twenty stops to think about his confused state of mind, clenches his fists and tries to grasp reality. But it is not so good to be doing it at thirty. And doesn't it turn you cold to think you will still be doing it at forty or later?
To understand why a woman seems thoughtful, embarassed and apologetic when she is with several young men, think how you feel yourself among five or six prostitutes, all watching you and waiting for you to make your choice.
A really lovely bosom consists of the entire chest, culminating in two peaks whose roots spring from the ribs. They are beautiful additions, but beneath them lies the chest.
It is not the actual enjoyment of pleasure that we desire. What we want is to test the futility of that pleasure, so as to be no longer obsessed by it.
Bachelors regard matrimony more seriously than married people do.
The man who avoids having children because he does not want to support them, will have to support other men's children.
It is natural that a woman, compelled by the circumstances to submit to the intrusion of another's body into her own (leaving out of her social subjection) should have developed a whole technique of escape within herself, eluding man, nullifying his conquest of her. Quite apart from her other weapons - deceitfulness and the game of social life.
Man is, at most, the slave of vice, but the woman, after coition, is the slave of the probable consequences: hence her terribly practical attitude to these things.
Since one is bound to throw a woman over, sooner or later, it is as well to do it quickly.
An experience that seemed to you commonplace - let time pass, and you will see it with fresh eyes. It will be amazing.
Why do we find any new writer tiresome? Because we do not yet know enough about him to visualize him in a social environment we would feel confident in sharing.
In his Purgatorio, Dante never turns back to survey the panorama, for the reason that he is not realistically describing a journey, but expounding a creed, using the scene and making it visible only in so far as it serves to give his ideas a bodily form. Thus he is not obliged to respect the naturalistic logic of reality.
At the end of the century, the theme of the discord between art and life - the artist who feels ineffectual and out of touch with reality - put a stop to all the romantic autobiographies that seemed inadequate after the wild outburst of genius and folly in the eighteen hundreds.
Love is the cheapest of religions.
There is a type of man accustomed to thinking that life owes him nothing, not even on the score of work he has done or an ordeal he has endured: nothing from anyone on any pretext whatever, not even from those he has helped. Consequently he gives nothing to others except for his own pleasure. Myself exactly.
In general, the man who is readily disposed to sacrifice himself is one who does not know how else to give meaning to his life.
The profession of enthusiasm is the most sickening of all insincerities.
The characters in your poems tend a little too much to have odd, i.e., picturesque, ways of earning a living.
The interest of this journal would be the unforeseen profusion of ideas, the periods of inspiration that, of themselves, automatically, indicate the main trends of your inner life. From time to time you try to understand what you are thinking, and only as an afterthought do you go on to link your present ideas with those of days gone by. The originality of these pages is that you leave the construction to work itself out, and set your own spirit in front of you, objectively. There is something metaphysical in your confidence that this psychological sequence of your thoughts will shape itself into a well-constructed work.
One man may seem to you older than his age, and another always appears younger than his actual years. They are two distinct types of men; probably they have other differences. You belong to those who are younger than their years. At thirty, you do not believe you are so old.
Faulkner's figures of speech (Sanctuary) are dialectic and imaginative: for example, "crazy as a cow on a bicycle," or when he describes the eyes of a deaf old man as being "turned inwards to show the backside of the eye-balls," or Temple who thinks about becoming a man and feels like a tube fallen over as does the finger of a glove - flop! They are all Elizabethan metaphors; "Fate is a spaniel; we cannot beat it from us"; narrative images, not contemplative, substituting for the object an expressive indication; the images that create a language.
Why do people adopt poses, play the dandy, the skeptic, the stoic or the careless trifler? Because they feel there is something superior in facing life according to a standard and a discipline they have imposed on themselves, if only in their mind. And, in fact, this is the secret of happiness; to adopt a pattern of behavior, a style, a mold into which all our impressions and expressions must fall and be remodeled. Every life lived according to a pattern that is consistent, comprehensive and vital, has a classic symmetry.
Spent the day with Gognin.
All libertines are sentimentalists. First, that stems from their long, verbal pretense to be so; then, from their contact with women, which makes them used to all that is delicate, soft and formal; but above all it arises from considering the relations between men and women as a field, not of duties, but of emotions. The cure for sentimentalism is to become, not cynical, but serious-minded.
We must never say, even in fun, that we are disheartened, because someone might take us at our word.
It is a certain sign of love to want to know, to relive, the childhood of the other.
A man succeeds in completing a work only when his qualities transcend that work.
Gognin's way of talking at random, capriciously putting a subject aside and going back to it when the fancy takes her, has become a style. Anyone who accepts and adopts it she treats as a friend. She likes doing it and makes a habit of it. The power of a style!
As for love affairs, we can only tolerate our own.
The best defense against a love affair is to tell yourself over and over again till you are dizzy: "This passion is simply stupid; the game is not worth the candle." But a lover always tends to imagine that this time it is the real thing; the beauty of it lies in the persistent conviction that something extraordinary, something incredible, is going to happen to us.
My affair with Gognin (provided it is all over) has been a repetition of '34-'38.
No, it is not all over.
Can it be true that you fall in love only with women who are very popular (the ballerina, Gognin) and that what pleases you about them is that they are desired by everyone, that you suffer because you are not the only one to possess them? The really clever thing, in affairs of this sort, is not to win a woman already desired by everyone, but to discover her while she is still unknown. (Cinderella.)
Love has the faculty of making two lovers seem naked, not in each other's sight, but in their own.
To see again the woman you have been desperately longing for, the one you have been thinking of every single moment for a fortnight, has almost the effect of disillusionment. The real woman is different from the one you have been dreaming of, more definite, yet more evasive.
Women are utterly, fundamentally, indifferent to poetry. In this they are like men of action, and all women are "men of action." It seems that they are interested in it, from adolescence, for one subtle reason only: poetry is born of a bacchanalian exaltation, an exaltation that lies at the root of all that women regard as real. Even when they are inexperienced or superficial, women never confuse any other emotion with the real, active, vital emotion that seizes them when confronted with life itself.
Great lovers will always be unhappy, because for them, love is of supreme importance. Consequently they demand of their beloved the same intensity of thought as they have for her, otherwise they feel betrayed. It does not please a woman that a man thinks of her day and night, for she does not think of him all the time.
We obtain things when we no longer want them.
Classification of women: those who exploit others, and those who let others exploit them. Classification of men: those who love the first type, and those who love the second.
I do not know what to do with women who belong to other men.
Rome is a crowd of young men waiting to have their shoes polished.
A morning walk. Bright sunshine. But where are the impressions of '45-'46? After some effort I found what inspired me then, but nothing new. Rome is silent. Neither the stones nor the trees tell me anything more. This amazing winter; under the clear, cold sky, the berries of Leuco. The usual story. Even grief and suicide were part of life, shock, tension.
At great periods you have always felt, deep within you, the temptation to commit suicide. You gave yourself to it, breached your own defenses. You were a child.
The idea of suicide was a protest against life; by dying, you would escape this longing for death.
The directions that destiny can take are not subject to variation. We may affirm that a certain undertaking (sometimes? always?) is good, that it welds together all our days in a planned development - but it was, initially, a bud that had to take its own course and come into existence.
Now I see, I realize, what is so wrong with Rome. Easy friendliness, taking life as it comes, money earned and spent without a thought, yet everyone's standards, tastes, desires are wholly subjugated to money-making.
Even your thirties are beginning to seem to you like infancy, adolescence. Now the culture you acquired then can be used in your novels. Virility becomes a matter of intuition ("fiction-writing") when it seems a part of your adolescence.
When one has absorbed an experience and can view it with detachment, it takes like a childlike ingenuousness. Great poetry is ironic.
I am filled with distaste for what I have done, for all my works. A sense of failing health, of physical decadence. The downward curve of the arc. And your life, your loves, where are they? I retain a certain optimism: I do not accuse life, I find that the world is beautiful and worthwhile. But I am slipping. What I have done I have done. Is it possible? Desire, longing, the urge to take, to do, to get my teeth into something new. Can I still do it? (All that because of a flood of unfavorable reviews of Diavolo sulle colline.)
Thinking again of the sisters D., I know that I have lost a great opportunity of playing the fool. Rome grows more colorful as I look back.
Corollary. The theme of a work of art cannot be a truth, a concept, a document etc, but only, once again, a myth. From myth directly into poetry, without passing through theory or action.
A trip to Tuscany and Emilia. I thought of my essay on poetry and popular culture; thought, above all, of the connection between the countryside and culture, of the natural (botanical and mineral) roots of art. At Florence (Rovez-zano) in Val Pesa, Elsa - Siena - you felt why that land has given birth to art. The country expresses the grace of Florence and Siena. But when a civilization is no longer linked with the country, what will be the radical sources of its culture? Are we henceforward to be cut off from the influx of botany, minerals, the seasonal changes of the countryside upon art? It would seem so.
I saw S. Asciutto again, hard, taciturn, weary. He spoke of his pleasures, his trips into the country and up the mountains after coleoptera, in the rain; he listened absentmindedly and in silence to my talk about Tuscany, my vivacity, my poses. He never made a comment. The embarrassment I felt would at one time have been disastrous, tragic. What sustains me? The work I have done, the work I am doing.
This morning at five or six o'clock. The morning star, huge and quivering on the mountains of snow. Excitement, trepidation, insomnia. Constance was sweet and submissive, but none the less detached and firm. All day my heart has been pounding and still has not calmed down. (For three nights I have hardly slept. I talk and talk.) What is called passion, is it not simply this wild beating of the heart, this weakness of the nerves? I am much worse than I was in '34 and '38. Then I was frenzied with desire, but I was not ill.
Yet it all seems to me a passing wandepunkt. All of it. But she is a well-known figure, socially and morally. Suppose there were some misunderstanding?
And I? Am I not deluding myself as I used to do, mistaking for human values those simple accessories of distinction, glamour, adventure, the fashionable world? America itself, its sweet, ironic return to my life in terms of human values? Can it be true?
My heart throbs; I tremble, I cannot stop sighing. Is it possible at my age? What is happening is the same as when I was twenty-five. Yet I feel confident and (incredibly) serenely hopeful. She is so good, so calm, so patient. So made for me. After all, it was she who sought me out.
But why did I not dare, on Monday? Was I afraid? ... It is a terrible step to take.
It was a terrible step, yet I took it. Her incredible sweetness, her "Darlings," her smile, her long-repeated pleasure at being with me. Night at Cervinia, nights at Turin. She is a child, an unspoiled child. Yet she is herself - terrifying. From the bottom of my heart, I did not deserve so much.
My heart is still with you. A condescending phrase from a superior to an inferior. Why should I be so pleased about it? Obviously, I am receiving favors, not bestowing them. How can one possess without being possessed? Everything depends on that.
From the talk I had this evening it seems clear that I am “possessed” because I enjoy playing the interesting role of a man who “belongs” to a woman. I ought to be the master and take my pleasure calmly, as though by right. I shall be loved more. Only so shall I be truly loved. But shall I enjoy it more? Whenever I have been the possessor, I have had no pleasure at all. The old story.
Then I must be possessed without showing it. But is it possible to make love with a prudent awareness, a predetermined self-control?
Nothing. She has written nothing. She could be dead. I must get used to living as though this were normal.
There are so many things I have not told her. Deep down my terror at the thought of losing her now is not a longing for "possession," but the fear that I shall never more be able to tell her those things. What they may be I do not now know, but they would pour out like a torrent if I were with her. That is creation. Oh God, make me find her again.
Love is truly a great manifesto; the urge to be, to count for something, and, if death must come, to die valiantly, with acclamation - in short, to remain a memory. Yet my desire to die, to disappear, is still bound up with her: perhaps because she is so magnificently alive that, if my being could blend with hers, my life would have more meaning than before.
One does not kill oneself for the love of a woman, but because love - any love - reveals us in our nakedness, our misery, our vulnerability, our nothingness.
Before leaving for Milan. Nothing. Still nothing. How can I bear it? Now, in the street, by myself, I speak excellent English.
Nothing. I have a live coal in my breast, embers glowing under the ashes. Oh Constance! Why? Why?
Good. She has written. I have talked to her long distance. She does not want me at once. Oh well, that is fine. Work.
Beyond doubt, there is in her not only herself, but all my past life, the unconscious preparation - American, my ascetic restraint, my intolerance of trifling things, my work. She is poetry, in the most literal sense. Is it possible that she has not felt it?
Curious, this procession of women - I., L., R., L., and all unawares, V. and D. They all know or guess that a sacred mystery is taking place within me, and are filled with wonder.
The opinion of all those who know is that she has been very impressed by me, that she thinks more of me than I imagine. Can they all be wrong? They are women.
And now. Everything is happening at once. Truly, to him that hath shall be given. But he that hath, does not take. The old story.
The cadence of suffering has begun. Every evening, as dusk settles, my heart constricts until night has come.
The idea is dawning on me, little by little, that, even if she does come back, it will be as though she were not here. “I’ll never forget you,” is what is said to someone one means to leave. Anyway, how did I act myself towards women who weighed me down, bored me, women I did not want? Exactly like that. The act - the act - must not be a revenge. It must be a calm, weary renunciation, a closing of accounts, a private, rhythmic deed. The last remark.
My happiness of '48-'49 is paid for in full. Behind that Olympian contentment lay my impotence and my refusal to become involved. Now, in my own way, I have gone down into the abyss: I contemplate my impotence, I feel it in my bones, and I am caught in a political responsibility that is crushing me. There is only one answer: suicide.
Dilemma. Should I act in perfect amity, doing it all for her own good, or diabolically explode? A pointless question - already settled by my whole past, by fate: I shall be a diabolical friend, gaining nothing by it - but perhaps I shall have the courage. The courage. Everything will depend on having it at the right moment - when it will do her no harm - but she must know it, she must know it. Can I deny myself that?
Certainly, I know more about her than she does about me.
I cannot finish with style. How she still attracts me.
The thing most feared in secret always happens.
I write: oh Thou, have mercy. And then?
All it takes is a little courage.
The more the pain grows clear and definite, the more the instinct for life asserts itself and the thought of suicide recedes.
It seemed easy when I thought of it. Weak women have done it. It takes humility, not pride.
All this is sickening.
Not words. An act. I won't write any more.
Cesare Pavese took his own life in 1950. You can purchase his diaries here.
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