Lives Lived I: Rondeau

by MJJ

It's an old photograph, a strange photograph, in some ways a shocking photograph. A young man in the costume of the last century lounges, weary and enervated, in an armchair. His cloud of blond hair, reminiscent of the paintings of Burne-Jones, and the high tight collar of his tightly cut suit, and the roses that fall from his elegant, nerveless fingers: all these mark him as one of the Aesthetes, that hyper-refined group of intellectuals and aristocrats who gathered in London in that most hothouse of decades, the 1890's. The swooning eyes, a deep blue which the photograph's sepia tones can only dimly suggest, focus with difficulty on his watcher. It's those eyes which give the viewer pause, which suggest that he has opened a door at random on a scene he was not meant to see. Those languorous and fainting eyes should never have been presented to a stranger's view. They are the eyes of a Maenad drunk on the presence of the god Dionysus; they are the eyes of an opium-eater, watching the devilish and heavenly phantoms of his drug; they are, if we speak truth, the eyes of a woman at the moment of ecstasy, seen only by one man in the privacy of her bedchamber. Yet here they are- indecent, immodest- present in this neatly attired youth in his proper livingroom chair in a parlour in Chelsea. Who was he, this young man who turns on the photographer the same look he turns on his lover? We might think of one of Cavafy's youths, of much the same period- 'Days of '94' perhaps:

A youth of perfect beauty
With the joy of the inviolate in his eyes.

But the Alexandrian wrote of rough working class men, possessing a moment's fleeting beauty at eighteen or nineteen before the pattern of their lives, the treadmill of work and poverty and marriage, turned them into leathery old men by their thirtieth birthdays. Our young man was half a world away geographically, and an astronomical distance socially, from these stonemasons' apprentices and cafe waiters. His name was Esmond. His last name we will not reveal, for as the melodramas say, it still has the power to cause scandal in the highest circles of society and government.

It has been said that for a man, the most fortunate place and period to live in was England in the latter 19th century, between, let's say, 1840 and 1914. From the point of view of everything but plumbing, perhaps, this is true. Young Esmond, being fastidious in nature, contrived to be born after the first water mains were laid in London, and delayed his appearance in this world until 1870. To the long list of Esmond's advantages- the state of being male, English, gentile, Anglican, aristocratic, beautiful, and rich- were thus added the blessings of hot water and flush toilets. The good fairies all attended his christening and bestowed their gifts upon him; the wicked godmother apparently missed her train connection in Reading and failed to appear. So our young man possessed from birth all the goods that one can hope for on this earth. He had loving parents willing to indulge his every whim. He had an older brother to take on the cares of the family name and the family seat in the House of Lords. He had none of those infirmities which are the national bane of the English: his constitution, his digestion and his brain were alike ironcast. In short, there was nothing in his life to cause him a moment's affliction-- including, we must add, possession of that inconvenient organ known as a heart.

This fact, not at once apparent, became known to a number of people, greatly to their cost. The photograph we are looking at does not presently exist in England, but in an old country house in Germany. It's part of the flotsam that any great house comes to possess over the decades- tucked away in a drawer or a closet until unearthed by a new generation who asks 'Who is this?" And the answer comes- 'Your uncle Reinhardt's friend' or 'Your great- uncle Reinhardt's friend' or, eventually, 'I don't know. I think it belonged to Great-grandfather or his brother or someone.' By this point, the story of Uncle or Great-uncle or Great-great- uncle Reinhardt has been lost to history. He becomes one of those pale shadows among the ancestry: one of a multitude of younger brothers, in those days of ten or more children, who went to study in England, lost his heart to an unfortunate choice (the edited family version, while still current, suggested an actress or opera singer), came home a moody, despairing wreck of himself and, in the traditional way of the impetuous tribe of Werther, ended his life at twenty-two with a bullet through his brain.

Esmond was not aware of this fact. Reinhardt's last wild, accusing and incoherent letter to him received a brief scan and was tossed aside. Esmond was dining with a marvellous new artist that evening and had to prepare his toilette. And if he had known- well, what could he have done? When a super-romantic German student decides that you are his be-all and end-all, that your souls are the reincarnation of Phaedo and Cratylus, that you are the glory of ancient Greece returned to walk in the prosaic streets of London, and that the two of you should forthwith abandon the philistine modern age, swear eternal brotherhood, and take yourselves off to a life of Nature, Philosophy and Manly Love (the capital letters of Reinhardt's native tongue regularly worked their way into his diction) on Samos or Rhodes or someplace- really, what's a chap to do? These Germans are so serious always. They simply have no sense of proportion. Leave London? leave his clubs and the theatre and the galleries and the restaurants, leave the company of amusing friends and talented boys- trade all the delights of his civilized entertaining life for high thinking and virtual monogamy in a primitive country with no gas mains or running water? Of course it was impossible. But somehow Reinhardt couldn't be brought to see sense, and so naturally they'd had to part company. To Esmond it was merely the unremarkable ending to an unremarkable affair.

Thus was the general run of Esmond's life. Perhaps the unfortunate German had been right about his previous existence, for Esmond possessed to the full the Greek notion of 'meiden agan': nothing in excess. That picture will do as an example. As a sentimental keepsake for Reinhardt, during a happier moment of their relationship, Esmond allowed an amateur photographer friend to catch his image at the moment of orgasm: but stipulated that he be alone and fully clothed. Had the friend suggested a nude study of the two together, Esmond would have refused, offended in some fastidious part of his soul. It was not that he was prudent, exactly, merely discriminating. The louche and dangerous, the taste for which proved the ruin of many of his generation, held no attractions for him. Inevitably it involved a degree of dirt, vulgarity, or discomfort that he simply couldn't stomach. Once or twice he went feasting with panthers in the company of Wilde, but the accents of the boys involved grated on his ears and he cut his ties to the Irishman early on. He tasted the delirious dreams of the hookah pipe- became, indeed, a lifelong devotee-, but did so in the comfort of his own Belgravia apartments rather than in some flea-infested opium den amongst rough Chinamen and navvies. Grown older and in pursuit of young male flesh, he betook himself to the continent where it could be purchased more cheaply and safely than at home. Among Piedmontese peasants and Neapolitan boatmen he found those poor enough to be willing to serve his needs and insignificant enough to pose no danger with the police. These casual and mercenary liaisons he thought preferable to furtive unsanitary encounters in a public lavatory or out in the cold and fog of Hampstead Heath; and so he was spared the ordeal of the police courts and the nightmare of blackmail that afflicted those men, unpossessed of an inherited income, who had to find their pleasure in England. Like one who watches from a safe promontory the seawreck of others, Esmond passed his days to his own satisfaction, and wondered at those whose lives and reputations foundered on the rocks of imprudent desire. It was, he thought, so unnecessary.

Esmond's luck held in respect to world events as well. Too old to fight in the first world war, he died in 1940 before the inconveniences of the second could begin, of a brief if excruciating heart attack. Since it was the only time in the whole of his seventy years that that part of his body had given him a moment's trouble, one might conclude that his life on the whole had been a success.

As for what followed...

Plato has a delightful parable in his Republic, the story of Er the Armenian. This warrior was slain in battle, but after ten days was sent back by the gods to tell the world how the souls of men fare after death. According to Er, after expiating their sins or taking their rewards for a period ten times the length of their former lives, the souls are gathered in a grassy meadow before the throne of Lachesis, under the gigantic spindle of her mother Necessity. Here they select the life they will have in their next incarnation. The lives to come are scattered on the ground before them. The first soul, as determined by lot, then goes to make his choice, and the others in their order after him. The first soul that Er the Armenian saw at once picked up the life of a great king, which promised him both power and riches; but it failed to notice until too late that this life involved horrors such as devouring his own children. The other souls made their choices as the experience of their previous lives prompted them. The soul of Orpheus became a swan because he refused, from hatred of the Maenad women who had caused his death, to be born again from a woman's body; the soul of Ajax, wounded in his honour, also eschewed the human race in favour of a lion's form; and the soul of Odysseus, wearied of his great achievements, chose the most humble and ordinary life it could find. (We might mention here the fate of the soul of that unfortunate German student, which chose in its bitterness to become one who was an utter stranger to love; but in its haste to achieve indifference to the charms of men, Reinhardt's soul failed to notice until too late that it had picked up the life of a paid killer, and so condemned itself to live in a wasteland of suspicion, intrigue, violence and betrayal.) Then all the souls are led away, given a drink of Lethe water to efface the memory of what has happened between lives, and ushered out into the world to begin the old dance anew.

We may assume that Esmond, on reaching the meadow below the spindle of Necessity and being instructed to choose his future life, said to the divinity in charge, as he would have said to a waiter at his club, 'Same again, my man.' Certainly the results would indicate such an event, for Esmond was reborn an Englishman- male, gentile, Anglican, aristocratic, beautiful and rich, as before; as before, with a keen love of aesthetic beauty and the ability to capture more hearts than he knew what to do with; as before, with health and vigour to spare. If he had lost anything, it was perhaps only the parsimony of spirit that had kept him so comfortable in his previous existence. But since he didn't know he'd possessed it in the first place, he was doubtless not much bothered by its loss.

And so he lived his life, exciting, adventurous, full of love and satisfied passion, until a day in his twenty-third year when he re-encountered the soul of Reinhardt. His former lover was currently in the employ of NATO, and the rest, as they say, is history. For of course Er the Armenian (and Plato as well) got it wrong. The sins of the former life are expiated in the current one; and Dorian, as he then called himself, had just received a heavy bill of karma with 'Payment this day' stamped on it. That celestial tradesman, Lachesis the daughter of Necessity, gives no deferments: when she appears at the front door it's useless to instruct the servants to say you're not at home while you sneak out the back; and at last view, Esmond was still paying his dues to Reinhardt who had, of course, chosen to be quite indifferent to them.

 

Note: A rondeau is brief poem which contains only two possible rhymes and which ends with a repetition of the beginning.

 

Eroica