The Tentativeness of Feeling
In his debut novel, A Time of Indifference, Alberto Moravia's central character Michele says, "I don't know how to get passionately involved with life." Such a feeling is a central aspect of Moravia's work, and what we want to explore here is how this refusal or inability to get passionately involved in life at the same time doesn't quite reduce itself to critic Martin Seymour-Smith observation that Moravia has two main themes - "he is a masterful critic of bourgeois 'bad faith', moral decadence...and he explores the strains imposed on males by their loneliness and by their (in his fiction) fruitless efforts to escape from it by the exploitation of women." In many of Moravia's short fictions (for example those collected in the stories we'll concentrate on here, The Fetish and Other Stories), we notice that he is a writer fascinated by eroticism but can't assume from it sexual satisfaction, that the apparent moral decadence and the potential exploitation come together as he explores, as we'll try and show, the threshold - an approach very suited to the short story form of which Moravia is an underrated master, and where he manages to express in it feelings rather than emotions.
Now in relation to the sexual element in Moravia this does not take place chiefly in the body in much of Moravia's work, but in the permutations of the mind linked to the body. It is partly what gives his work a paradoxical frigidity: a character is impotent in the face of the world and needs particular signs to arouse desire. In 'The Man Who Watched', central character Valerio "noticed at once that the very nature of the feeling of jealousy that urged him to play the spy prevented him from observing anything at all that was not Lavinia." The object of his desire obliterates all objects from his vision, and at one moment in the story as he watches a lawyer and his wife talk, "he really suspected that there was something between Lavinia and the lawyer and felt the need of a proof, not so much of her innocence as of her guilt." In 'Jealousy Plays Tricks', "hitherto, in spite of his fatigue from sleeplessness, he had always managed to distinguish between sleeping and waking. Now, with a mingled feeling of alarm and astonishment, he became conscious that, without realizing it, he had passed from a dream which had some semblance to reality, to a reality which had the absurdity of a dream."
In each instance Moravia interrogates the idea of the individual mind creating a state to justify a feeling. One says feeling rather than emotion, because an emotion seems too assertive a response to the Moravian world, where feeling indicates merely a sense of an emotion. In another story, 'The Dream', Silvio wonders how to comprehend the feeling in his body after a date fails to show up. "This something, he went on to think, seeking to superimpose the coolness of an objective examination upon the burning smart of his wounded pride, might be a moral, or rather a moralistic, scruple: it might be a change of heart due at best, to the suspicion that she did not love him enough, or was not enough loved by him..." As he works through the various permutations for the feeling, it is as though he can't quite allow it to pass for an emotion, and there is in much of Moravia's work a tentativeness towards bodily states because of the significance of the mind to those states. Moravia is hardly at all a kinetic writer; he is not someone who is especially interested in objective worlds that can generate emotions; he is intrigued by the nature of people's feelings. When for example Valerio wishes for proof of Lavinia's infidelity in 'The Man Who Watched', he has, in our parlance, a feeling about her infidelity, a feeling in the sense of a groping towards a justification for his state of body and especially mind.
One isn't at all suggesting here that Moravia has no interest in the body and that his is a literature of the brain; more that the mind and the body are asynchronous, and Moravia explores the nature of that asynchronicity. If a psychologist and physiologist like Pavlov is behavioural it resides in the belief in physiological reflexes, and an orienting reflex; that the body and mind are synchronized enough for us to read emotional states out of external behaviour. Pavlov combined natural reflex and a neutral stimulus, so that while the dog would inevitably react to meat powder placed on its tongue and automatically salivate, it did not initially react to the sound of a buzzer. For a period of time Pavlov twinned the activities of the buzzer and the meat powder, and after a while the dog salivated when he heard the buzzer even if there was no meat powder.
By analogy Moravia is fascinated by the idea that sometimes one doesn't salivate at the meat powder; but sometimes responds inexplicably to the buzzer. This is why we suggested Moravia looks at the problem of paradoxical frigidity; that the persons's desire lacks the cause and effect mechanisms necessary for anything resembling an objective eroticism. This is frigidity not in any absolute sense of the term, but in the existential sense as characters search out their own sexual and emotional needs through the exploration of feeling. Pavlov explores and explains the problem of emotional directness and indirectness, the reflexive and the stimulative: the smell of food and the sign of food. But what happens if the reflexive and the stimulative no longer function; are we in the realm of the perverse, or in the area of the emotionally self-defining? When in The Time of Indifference Michele says that he doesn't know how to get passionately involved in life, this is partly due to the difficulty of reflex and stimulus. What we are proposing is that in Moravia's work the exploration of narrative gives way to the exploration of motive, but this is not the motivational pull towards story, but towards feeling.
In his book on Milan Kundera, Agnes's Afternoon, Francois Richard notes that in "the pre-Kafka novel, the hero's fight was based on a fundamentally "optimistic" vision of the world in which he had to live and battle." With Kafka this kind of assurance was no longer viable. Moravia may be no Kafka, and there are many who regard him as a popular though very minor figure in modern literature, but Moravia at his most intriguing creates a sense of mystery that resides in exploring the gap where fiction can no more be so sure of its optimism. It no longer possesses if you like a reflexive and semiotic assuredness that proposes there is a real world to which we respond and that directly attends to our senses, and an abstract world that attends to our reason. If it is the smell of a new lover that arouses our senses, it will nevertheless be reading the cues that will get her into our bed. If she dresses up for the occasion, laughs at our jokes, and invites us back to her flat for a coffee, we may decide there are enough abstract signs for direct sexual possibilities. But what happens if the cues and the reflexes cannot create the necessary emotions - are we left in the world of vague feeling?
In the story 'Passing the Time', the central character notes the problem with clock time as he waits for a lover who can't make their usual appointment at three and will come two hours later. "The times devoted to reading, to music to work were regulated by psychology, by feeling, and were long or short according to the interest of the moment." Clock time though "conventionally divided into seconds, and minutes, was what it professed to be...an occupation of this mind, however, which excluded all participation on the part of the person devoting himself to it, must be completely mechanical." The character believes from such a perspective that he needs to transform himself into a machine in order to make time pass. Later in the story Ernesto reckoned that a completely absurd, mechanical action wasn't possible because man is not a machine, but of course often the absurd comes from the reaction to feeling one might be becoming one. As Ernesto wanders round the flat trying to find ways to fill the time, so at the end of the story, as his lover turns up, she says she had to stay at home later so the plumber could mend her bathroom. He asks Alina how she managed to pass the time waiting for the plumber to finish, and she replies that "I thought about you".
Ernesto's lover escapes the mechanical, whilst believing in the world, or at the very least it seems in believing in Ernesto: she can think about him. But Ernesto is in danger of succumbing to absurdity, the sense of the absurd explored by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus when he says "It happens that the stage set collapses. Rising, tram four hours in the office or factory, meal, train, fours hours of work, meal sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday according to the same Rhythm." But as Camus notes, one day the 'why' arises - "weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciouness." Camus' impulse of consciousness is perhaps similar to our use of the term feeling, as Moravia's central characters frequently hint at the possibility of an impulse of consciousness but remain slightly trapped within the feeling that cannot quite become a thought nor quite an emotion: they can neither quite crystallize into realization nor into action. This gives to Moravia's stories their sub-text, as even one of his most self-conscious characters like Ernesto in 'Passing the Time' doesn't arrive at a hypothesis for that feeling, but leaves it at least temporarily unexpressed. At the end of the story Ernesto follows Alina into his study and as he does so, "he found himself wondering with astonishment: 'Why didn't I do the same thing, why didn't I think about her?'" This resembles the 'why' Camus mentions, a why that "awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening." This is generally not what interests Moravia; his characters throughout The Fetish and other Stories stand at the threshold as Moravia sets up the estrangement of a character from the world he exists within.
We notice this in a story that could have been a straightforward examination of pathetic doting, contained by an ironic conclusion. Here in All Right, Sandro is besotted by Nora and willingly obeys her every command when they go to her apartment, even though she says he'll have to leave when she receives a phone call. The first telephone call is brief, and it seems her lover isn't coming. Later she receives another and he is going to turn up. During the call she says all right three times in a breathless and joyful manner, and we can contrast it with Sandro's all rights, a term he uses so often that Nora gets irritated with him for using it. At the end of the story, when he's been asked to leave and told he can come back later after her lover has gone, he again says all right, and, like Nora, says it three times. But though Moravia could be playing this for irony - that Nora is as besotted by her lover as Sandro is by Nora - there is perhaps at the same time the metaphysical threshold, that potential impulse of consciousness. Nora says "all right" with energy and enthusiasm, Sandro seems reduced to a mechanistic yes man, doing what he's told to the point that he appears drained of purpose and meaning. At one moment near the end of the story, when Nora shouts at him and locks herself in the bathroom after he talks to her about the sea that reminds her of her lover, Sandro stares out of the window, and looks down. "Six floors below could be seen the roofs of cars and the larger roof of a bus moving slowly and laboriously along the street." Is he thinking of jumping; is he watching the mechanical nature of life below seen from a certain height? This hint of an impulse to consciousness is the sort of feeling we're proposing runs through much of Moravia's fiction. While seconds before he had an emotion as he "beat his fist on the closed door", this is promptly replaced by what we're calling feeling. The emotion is kinetic, clearly comprehensible (Sandro is annoyed that Nora's locked herself in the bathroom) and thoroughly understandable. In such an instance, Sandro is unhappy, Nora capricious and we are in world of narrative optimism as Richard would define it. The world makes sense and we could see that Nora is a pain and Sandro would do well to find someone else to project his emotions upon. But if the story is of interest it rests in the feelings that come out of an emotional situation. When Nora speaks breathlessly on the phone to her lover, Sandro can clearly hear her, and we could take it as his cue for a sort of situational self-awareness. He could see that her own repetition of 'all right' indicates weakness in the face of another as he is weak in front of Nora. But Moravia rejects situational self awareness without quite giving the story over to the full impulse of consciousness in the Camus sense. Sandro, like many another Moravia character, moves beyond situational self-awareness without possessing the wherewithal for self-investigation. As the story concludes with her telling Sandro he must go, and to shut the door after him, the story ends with Sandro saying "all right". He is quite literally back where he started, offering the phrase "all right" at the beginning of the story and the same one at the end. Moravia though has shown us a hint of a threshold consciousness, that the story gives space not for ironic detachment, but the problem of attachment as a metaphysical limitation. When Nora talks to her lover she might be in a weaker position, but there is nothing suggesting she's been especially debilitated by that weakness as she is immediately rejuvenated by the call: as the narrator notes, she answers the phone in a breathless voice and says "all right in a joyful manner". Sandro's "all rights" are arid phrases with Moravia giving no context to how they are expressed, and captures a potential exhaustion in Sandro's fascination.
In much of Moravia's work the exhaustion of the self, this threshold consciousness, arrives through the problem of the relationship. "I woke next morning languid and aching, and with a deep and pervading sense of repugnance for what awaited me that day and the days that followed." This is the opening of chapter 11 of A Ghost at Noon, which comes just after central character and narrator Ricardo says "I was driving now as though in a dream. An ugly dream, in which I was really called Ricardo and I had a wife called Emilia, and I loved her and she did not love me - in fact she despised me." Out of such despair one can move towards sensory motor health and escape from the situation, or move in the direction of sensory motor collapse that may or may not produce a new perspective. On the way to the potential collapse there are, psychologists believe, a number of ways in which the person can protect themselves from the reality of their situation. Included amongst these would be defence mechanisms, from repression to projection, from displacement to denial, even to sublimation.
Out of such psychological positioning, a writer can still create an optimistic universe as Richard defines it, as each psychological state can be observed with a detachment that leads not to the broad irony of the comic, but nevertheless the narrow irony of the assured position. In both 'Passing the Time' and 'All Right', the stories possess the potential for narrow irony as we could conclude that Ernesto simply doesn't love Alina, for while she thought about him as she alleviated her boredom, he didn't think about her in alleviating his. In 'All Right', Sandro could have seen how absurd and helpless we all are when we're in love with another, but again that would allow for the narrowly ironic: for conclusions that could be readily contained before the threshold point that seems vital to Moravia's work. 'All Right' from the perspective of narrow irony could be encompassed by the idea of denial. Sandro can't quite admit to himself that Nora has no interest in him, and still expects that she will want him eventually. In 'Passing the Time', Ernesto may at the end of the story settle for repression, as he refuses to acknowledge that he no longer loves Alina, but can't quite admit it to himself. In this sense the stories could be narrowly ironic mirror tales, with the denial of 'All Right' showing Sandro refusing to confront another's indifference, and 'Passing the Time', with Ernesto not confronting his own indifference to Alina. But such an ironic position would demand we accept the sort of psychological categories into which certain types of behaviour fit. Moravia pushes the problem of relationships beyond the broad irony of comedy, and the narrow irony of the dramatically contained that allows for ready assumption, and arrives at the problematic threshold. He pushes beyond the psychological categories.
Many a book of romance (and even classic works like Jane Austen's), plays on various now established psychological assumptions to generate a narrowly or broadly ironic mode, and from this point of view Martin Amis is right to say in The New Yorker, "some may be funnier than others, but all Jane Austen's novels are classical comedies: they are about young couples finding their way toward a festive conclusion, namely marriage." Claire Colebrook in her book Irony notes that Austen's "use of voices and dialogue is centred on some grounding value: the value of social dialogue and exchange itself, as opposed to merely received and repeated values". Austen's are nevertheless not remotely threshold works: the relationships affirm one's place in the world rather than calls it into question, and probably one could work through Austen's novels and see how they utilise many of the terms that psychologists now offer to explain personal behaviour. Where Amis talks of the Obstacle that "is always money", one may note all the mini-Obstacles also that allow for rationalization, denial, projection and other fairly categorical emotions and reactions.
A combination of them comes in a scene from Sense and Sensibility, after Marianne "awoke the next morning to the same consciousness of misery in which she had closed her eyes." Here along with her sister she tries to understand her feelings in relation to the character of Willoughby. "Sometimes she could believe Willoughby to be as unfortunate and as innocent as herself and at others, lost every consolation in the impossibility of acquitting him." "At one moment she was absolutely indifferent to the observation of all the world, at another she would seclude herself from it for ever, and at a third could resist it with energy." Here is a woman not at the threshold of consciousness, but the threshold of immediate decision making, with the reader and author awaiting the appropriate behaviour from a character often incapable of it. "Marianne, with excellent abilities and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid." Austen's very subtle exploration of gesture and feeling still leaves her optimistic in the world of values, even if it takes a novel length narrative for characters to recognize the error of their ways.
Austen indeed is probably a much subtler writer than Moravia, but that isn't our point - what counts is not the intricacy of psychologically acceptable states, but the move towards states that are hardly normalized and emotional, but exploratory and ineffable. If Austen's relationship with character and narrative resembles ships being smoothly brought to berth, Moravia's conclusions are closer to setting a boat adrift without a compass. In 'Passing Time' he has created a problem deeper than its immediate resolution. The metaphysical issue of time is greater than the psychological problem of Ernesto repressing his potentially indifferent feelings towards his lover.
Near the end of 'Words' a similar metaphysical problem arises, though on this occasion perception is clearly the problem as the central character recalls how a baby looked around the room and "he longed to look at reality in the same way, so that his wife's tears, the asphalt on the street, and everything else might become mere meaningless objects, as they would certainly have seemed to the baby if he had looked at them." This is a perceptual ground zero, as though for Riccardo all his thoughts had become full of absurd meaning without quite becoming meaningful. Earlier in the story "he looked at his wife and, all of a sudden, a disturbing idea flashed through his mind: that forced, meaningless, foolish smile that puffed up her face - was it possible that it resembled the smile which he himself, as he felt, was trying to maintain on his own face while he was speaking?" The problem here is not with false perceptions, but of perception itself: reality isn't hidden from Riccardo; his lucid consciousness sees beyond the surface of things but to what end? When just before the story's conclusion he notes that he has to "go on living", one can sense the incapacity of self in the face of reality. There is neither nothing that he can do, in any conventional sense of the term, nor anything that he is blind to, but more especially he needs to make the leap into a sort of abstract belief. When he talks to his wife about the lack of significance of words, he says "I went, so to speak, behind the facts and discovered that, in reality, they were merely words, that is, sounds without significance."
Obviously we can see this as a semiotic argument expressed in a nutshell: the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and what it signifies: the word chair and the chair it creates in our mind, and that if we all agreed to call the chair something else the object that is the chair would still be exactly the same: calling it a dog wouldn't alter the object status of the chair. Indeed the collection was first published in 1963 at around the same time as Moravia's good friend Pier Paolo Pasolini was working through semiotic questions, and Saussure's linguistic arguments were becoming common place in the work of Roland Barthes and others. But it is one thing to know that the relationship is arbitrary on a theoretical level; quite another to feel that it is so. To know that something is so does not mean we need to do anything about it, but what if that knowledge generates an internal crisis? For one person to realize God almost certainly doesn't exist causes no problem; for another it creates a chasm in their life that needs to be filled.
Moravia may be utilising loosely semiotic arguments, but at the same time he wants to give to that argument the weight not of knowledge but of feeling. Riccardo arrives at the threshold; that place between anguish and absurdity. "Yes, I ought to be in anguish," Riccardo says in 'Words', "according to the general opinion; but I'm not. I've discovered that I was tormenting myself over words, that is, over sounds..." At first he seems to need this relationship with language as he tries to escape from anxieties over the loss of the flat in which he lives. "...last night , I was in despair. I saw the van carrying off the furniture, the house empty etc. But as soon as I went behind the facts, I realized that it was merely a word, that is an absurd sound and nothing more." At the end of the story the absurd seems to give way to the anguished, as Riccardo manages to assuage his worries over the flat, but replaces them with the problem of meaning itself. He lives not in the world of meaninglessness available to the baby, but cannot quite arrive at meaningfulness either, as a materialist problem over the flat leads to a basic problem of existence.
It is such an approach to life that runs through many of Moravia's stories: a real but minor problem leading to an awareness of meaninglessness that sits behind it. There is a passage in Gabriel Josipovici's book On Trust where he talks of Kafka, and an entry in the writer's diaries. "...Kafka is trying to write conventional narrative and his heart isn't in it. The act does not involve him, only its aftermath, because, we might speculate, the act is so arbitrary and brutal, mirroring the writer's act in inventing and putting down this anecdote." However, Josipovici notes, "once the deed is done, however, the reactions to his protagonist quickens his interest, and then the landscape, which has witnessed these goings on and will witness many more, becomes something he can feel excited about conveying." It is as though one's general existence is predicated on the space between the meaningless and the meaningful, between the baby that is pre sensory motor and the collapsed adult who is post sensory motor, with the latter incapacitated not because he cannot make connections between things, but that he cannot believe in those connections. Josipovici notes how the act does not involve Kafka, and Moravia's stories at their best invoke the problem of the moment of dis-belief, when the world of meaninglessness is like a small tremor that is enough to signify the possible collapse of a building at its foundations. This is not narrative pessimism, but an ontological pessimism, so that the narrative can end without any great external tragedy, but does register an internal horror.
Central to the internal horror is the problem of cause and effect. Goethe declares "that only law can give us freedom", Idris Parry notes in Speak Silence, and Goethe "draws this concept of law from nature, where order is a continuing development of fact conditioned by energy." What happens though if cause and effect meet with the problem of objectivity and subjectivity? In 'The Dream', the narrator receives a phone call one evening while sleeping. It's from a woman he met at a party a month earlier, and they had shared a couple of intense hours with each other before Alina had to return to Milan. She'd promised to come back to Rome in three days' time but she hadn't. During the call they arrange to meet for lunch, but Alina doesn't turn up, and Silvio wonders why and tracks her down to a party where she says hello but not much more. He noted that "his association with Alina consisted of two parts which did not fit together and which, while they were plausible, if taken separately, became absurd when linked together." If he took into account only their meeting a month before and the brief exchange at the party now, then everything made sense. The problem lay in the phone call, and so what Silvio decides to do is assume that the phone call didn't actually happen. "By attributing it to a dream, everything explained itself." He notes that the dream had three elements that could allow it to be seen as such: it happened between two sleeps, was very precise in its details, and for all its detail, had no roots in reality: "in other words it was absurd". Yet of course the real absurdity lies in the interweaving of dream and reality, as Silvio notes that she did come to Rome as she said she would in the dream, but he settles for the dream interpretation, believing it was "nevertheless a dream because it was not to be explained in a rational manner."
Here the inexplicable becomes the oneiric as the subjective and objective worlds do not cohere, and we may assume that Sergio protects himself from the ineffable by resorting to the rational - but does he really believe it? As Parry says "we experience things. We don't experience infinity, we don't experience the universal. We have no sense organs for these." Yet sometimes the things we experience do not make sense, and so we apply a satisfactory category upon them. Silvio allows for a dream to make sense of an unusual incident, but the mystery remains intact. Here is a threshold experience that the character retreats from, as a strange event leads to normative thinking, just as in numerous other stories a casual moment of boredom (as in 'Passing Time') leads to disturbing thoughts. Either way, the problem of cause and effect, of the subjective and objective remains present: the character is still in the world of feeling and cannot quite commit to the idea of an emotion.
We may have no sense organs for the infinite, as Parry proposes, but we do have the capacity to 'prehend' things, and in Moravia this works like a combination of apprehension and comprehension: the fear of something and the understanding of something. Yet this is why we have consistently used the term feeling over emotion, as if Moravia's fiction seems like a combination of nightmare and reason - the apprehension of the former; the rationality of the latter. To prehend things is to sense an element within them of an aspect that is beyond them. In 'Words', the apprehension of the loss of his home leads to the comprehension that he is afraid merely of words, but this then leads to the prehension of the abyss between the two. In so many of Moravia's stories of jealousy, like 'The Man Who Watched' and 'Jealousy Plays Tricks', the apprehension of a cheating partner gives way not to the comprehensive feelings of jealousy, but the prehensive sense that the proof or otherwise is irrelevant next to understanding the feeling that he has.
Initially we opened with Seymour-Smith's comments on Moravia's interest in bad faith and the treatment of women. In many of the stories it is true that Moravia concentrates on characters who cannot quite act in good faith, and who at the same time treat women as objects, but bad faith and the woman objectified are expressed in a lot of writers' work, and we've been looking to understand what is specific about Moravia's tales. Are the characters really acting in bad faith, or are they caught in threshold experiences that resemble Sartre's ideas about the moment? In a passage from Being and Nothingess, Sartre explores the "anguish, the fear which I have of being suddenly exorcised (ie. of becoming radically other)." Sartre adds though that this allows for the "frequent emergence of "conversions" which make me metamorphose totally my original project. These conversions which have not been studied by philosophers, have often inspired novelists." For Sartre: "These extraordinary moments when the project collapses into the past in the light of a new project which emerges from its ruins and which as yet exists only in outline, in which humiliation, anguish, joy, hope are delicately blended, in which we let go in order to grasp and grasp in order to let go - these have often appeared to furnish the clearest and most moving images of our freedom."
Bad faith in such an instance would surely be where one retreats into the old self instead of seizing the moment, in not taking advantage of this new potentiality in consciousness. The moment though is not quite the same thing as the threshold, and this is why we may wonder whether bad faith is a term that fits Moravia's work even if, as Sartre proposes with the moment, we can say the threshold is central to the novel and not to philosophy. The moment would seem to be about choice (albeit more radically so than choice in Austen), the threshold about meaning, and so that just as Sartre would say that the novel often concerns itself with the individual in the face of decision making that would interest philosophy little (though maybe loosely existential precursors like Pascal and Kierkegaard would share this novelistic fascination), where assertiveness of argument would be more important than tentativeness of feeling, so Moravia works with a loosely semiotic argument to produce, equally, tentativeness of feeling. The threshold isn't especially different from the choice, but where the choice can often reveal bad faith, the threshold is the stage where meaning is not coherently enough in place for bad faith to become a problem. When Sartre describes the instance where "the prior moment collapses into the past in the light of the new project", the threshold experience is where the prior moment collapses into the past, but not so much in the light of the new project, but in the fading light of the past one with no new one necessarily imminent.
To understand more about this threshold consciousness let us look at several conclusions to Moravia's stories. In "It was an Adventure", a woman keeps phoning a young socialite and they finally meet up, where Lorenzo discovers that she is a married woman keen to enter into Roman circles, a woman who insists she won't be faithful to her husband, but shortly before the end of the story asks jealously about a woman she has seen Lorenzo with in a photo. They part, and Lorenzo wonders whether it was the adventure that he originally assumed it might be before meeting her, or a folly, and finally concludes it was the latter. In 'Words and the Night', after a dream a husband interrogates his wife over what she means when she says she was thinking of him, and Giovanni's wife says "it's feeling that's important, in some cases anyhow, not thinking." However Giovanni takes this to mean that he doesn't exist, and the story concludes with Giovanni saying "I think one can speak about anything", while the wife says "I, on the other hand...I think that, when there are things one can't speak about, it's best to keep silent." Giovanni realises that much of wife's love has little to do with him as he believes she keeps the thought of him to herself, and the story hinges on the threshold of whose approach to love is more appropriate. In 'Mere Objects', a young woman kisses a random stranger in the apartment that she and her fianc Ciro are looking at, and Ciro believes the man to be her lover after he witnesses her kissing him. She explains he isn't her lover; merely a man she decided to kiss so that she didn't feel like a mere object after Ciro earlier had forced her to kiss him, believing he was entitled to demand it as his fiance. The story ends with Ciro's fiance saying after Ciro asks if she will see the man again, "why should I see him again? I made use of him just as you had made use of me. I shan't ever see him again."
In each instance an assumption is turned into a fragile belief as Lorenzo may wonder why the egoistic possibilities in an adventure turn into nothing more than a folly, as Giovanni must accept that his wife's notion of love towards him does not always concern him, and Ciro must recognize that even if he insists on treating his fiance as an object, she may occasionally assert herself as a subject. In each instance a woman does not meet with a man's expectations and the man realises that he cannot believe any longer in certain beliefs that he held. This is not so much misogyny and bad faith, but assumption and potential reassessment. It is perhaps the problem of characters for whom the world makes much more sense abstractly than concretely. Thus the woman's gestures of independence or caprice, the reality of their own existence, counters the abstract fetishistic expectations of men for whom thought imposes itself on the women, just as the Moravian hero seems to salivate more at the buzzer than to the meat powder, as they're more interested in abstraction than the concrete. The gap can open up when the character realises that he hasn't been responding to the concrete but the abstract; and that his fragile world gets called into question by a certain reality he is confronted by.
Moravia's stories frequently look at the misogynistic question of woman as object, and that reveal her as subject to the detriment of the male figure's belief system. It is why so apparently minor events can rupture the characters' expectations on a deep level. If the characters were inclined to read reflex and stimulus conventionally, if they were themselves conventional characters, the psychological twists so many of the stories hinge on wouldn't be substantial enough to pass for stories. The revelation lies in the psyche, not in the event, so in story after story Moravia creates characters for whom a minor situation generates a major rupture as we realize how much they live in their heads.
In 'Don't You Feel Better', for example, an acquaintance visits Giacomo and tells him of her emotional troubles and how even objects carry the presence of the absent lover. As she explains her feelings, so Giacomo says "but it's you that feels sadness, not the coats and the pipes and books. These objects have nothing to do with you and your sadness..." At the end of the story, though, as Giacomo has been waiting by the telephone for a call from the woman he's besotted by, so the acquaintance concludes "you're thinking of the telephone, and you're cursing it, and it seems to you a malign and fatal object from which comes nothing but bad news". She offers some of the very same perspectives that he had offered her earlier in the story. The coats and the books in her case, the phone in his, are objects of special significance, and if Giacomo can't quite acknowledge that objects would be as significant for her as they have been for him, is it because he sees her, finally, as an object also? This is not quite misogyny as men hating women, but men objectifying women in a world where consciousness doesn't so much read signs in the world that are clearly abstractions of that world, but where abstractions are perceived as more real than the concrete. The characters are much more alienated than misogynistic.
In conclusion, what we've been exploring is Moravia's interest not quite in bad faith and misogyny, but the moment of consciousness, similar to Camus and Sartre's sense of the term, but seeing it instead as the threshold. Thus this threshold isn't the revelation of the misogynistic, but much more the object revealing itself as a subject, or the central character becoming aware of his abstract relationship with the world. That one could see the problem as that of bad faith and misogyny is entirely understandable. The characters are frequently caught realizing certain limitations in their lives and thoughts, and usually a woman is involved in these realizations. But usually the men haven't so much taken them for granted, but taken the world that revolves around they themselves for granted, and it is this world Moravia calls into question, and that allows for the feeling that develops in the characters. This is a feeling that does not have the certitude of an emotion, nor does it create the kinetic charge of an event, and this may be why Moravia is finally a great short story writer rather than an especially fine novelist. What Sartre says of the moment seems especially true of the existential novel in the broadest sense of the term (from Crime and Punishment to The Age of Reason, from Tender is the Night to The Outsider), and the exploration of the impetuous lapse (the murder in Crime and Punishment), or the slow acceptance of failure (as in Tender is the Night). But the short story form can lend itself better to the threshold, to the brief examination of a feeling that cannot quite be called an emotion, and may or may not in time lead to action.
Moravia's reputation as a writer may no longer be very high, but if one sees the short stories as the core of the work, he needn't be seen as an overrated novelist, but as a subtly fascinating short story writer who understands better than most that the story can lend itself to the threshold without giving itself over to the moment. Moravia's brief pieces collected in The Fetish and Other Stories run to between six and seven pages, and though of course Moravia wrote numerous longer ones (in the collection Bitter Honeymoon and The Wayward Wife and Other Stories for example); the length of the stories here capture perfectly the problematics we've addressed. These are the problems of the threshold, the gap between the objective and the subjective, the feeling over the emotion, the way apprehension and comprehension can lead to the vague feeling of prehension. Is it possible that a writer can be at his most significant when apparently at his most slight? Moravia may be such an example.
© Tony McKibbin