You’ve Never Seen Red Like This Before
At ten o’clock on a fine sunny morning I went out for a stroll and, as luck would have it, ran into Marina in front of the big department stores in the city center. My friend was wearing a magnificent gray dress I’d bought for her from a band of gypsy women during a trip to Tashkent. It was probably the finest item in her wardrobe and suited her marvelously. I would never have dreamed that it actually was made in Tashkent. But I was the one to discover the real label beneath a fake one bearing the name Dior.1 Marina was very happy to see me, too. She told me she was starting to get bored on her own: she’d be traveling to Crimea in a week and was going through the stores hoping to buy a few things.2
Both of us were sincerely delighted. Arm in arm we walked around the department stores and into a leafy little park we thought was very well tended: its gravel walkways were freshly raked, its benches newly painted, and water flowed in its lone marble fountain.3
“The stores are empty!” Marina moaned after we’d sat down. “I’ve wasted three sunny days and haven’t found a thing I like.” Then, incapable of accepting this with resignation, she sighed, “I’m naked! I have nothing to wear!”-which wasn’t even remotely true. She had on a pair of admirably well-made Austrian boots with pointed toes: there wasn’t a crooked stitch anywhere on them and they looked so whole, so rotund and corporeal, that they seemed to have been sculpted out of a solid block of leather. Knotted around her neck was a showy fringed scarf and ticking on her wrist was the very pretty watch-perhaps even authentically Swiss-that I myself had given her some time before. Still she went on complaining: “What am I going to do in the south without the fishnet stockings and wedge-heeled shoes I was thinking of buying?” I tried to console her. Not everyone had a scarf like hers. Better still, her outfit dated back only one season, and by a stroke of luck this summer’s range of colors was still the same as last summer’s. What was the use of fretting in vain? For now we’d do better to go on with our walk. We could continue on down toward the river, or simply go to the movies.
We ended up seeing a French movie that featured an enormous number of slender Frenchmen,4 all exquisitely well-dressed-incredibly so! Their suits draped their bodies with a primordial grace that spoke of many other suits hanging in their closets. In one scene, the protagonist astutely glided along in a pair of shoes with flexible soles that, to my great satisfaction, were exactly like my shoes. When his lover appeared on the screen, Marina squeezed my arm and in the darkness of the theater I saw her smile sadly. The scent of an excellent perfume-a French perfume, no doubt- drifted toward us from someone sitting nearby. What greater well-being could we ask for? We left the theater laughing, happy that such a perfume existed, possessed by a vitality as diaphanous as the air5 we were breathing deeply into our lungs. That night we danced until dawn. I remember the dancing very clearly because several times during the early morning hours the song that was our favorite that year came on.6 When she first heard it, as she was just stepping onto the dance floor, Marina let out a little cry of joy and buried her face in my chest. Halfway through the night, I went up to the balcony with another girl, for I was certain of Marina. From there, through the glass panes, I watched Marina slowly revolving, held close against her partner. Each time our eyes met, she gave me a smile.7
Commentary: This commentary on the events of that insignificant summer day is an attempt to itemize every component of an average day of my life in the USSR, selected at random. I hope this dissection will reflect that period more precisely than a report weighted down with dates and specific facts could. What I offer here is a generalization of the causes which, on any average day, led me to behave in a way many might criticize as frivolous or happy-go-lucky, an assessment which, as you will gather from what follows, I would now view as praise. I would also like to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that my discovery of the “lightness” of being took place specifically in the USSR, and not elsewhere. My approach to certain consumerist values, viewed as a phenomenon of global magnitude, was more than anything a political evolution, a process of de-ideologization which took place at the beginning of the 1980s during the smug final stage of actual socialism. “You’ve never seen red like this before” is an advertising slogan; its persuasive force so attracted me that I deemed it a fitting title for this study of frivolity.
1 “beneath a fake tag bearing the name Dior.” The mere contact with certain objects from a reality not left to its own devices but organized by strictly hierarchical criteria of quality and aristocracy instilled in me a strong notion of authenticity and solid value-a mental transformation which, over time, had a beneficial and corrective effect on my careless habits. I will illustrate this point with an example: At one point I spent several days thinking about buying two pairs of real leather shoes, both in the latest style, but in different colors: one pair gray, the other blue. Gray or blue! For a week my thoughts were taken up with the possibility of buying them (I had the money) and, what was more, by the even more hallucinatory possibility of choosing between two pairs of new, tasteful and magnificently well-made shoes. In the end I purchased neither pair (they’d sold out; I was still in the USSR after all), but I’d enjoyed the pleasure of incorporating them, however abstractly, into the eccentric orbit of my life. And from then on, that eccentric orbit revolved around things that were truly remarkable, each and every one with its own certificate of authenticity which guaranteed that it belonged to that new world which had remained far from me for so long, when I was beyond the reach of its gravitational force, but had now finally caught hold of me; like those wandering comets that cross through the solar system only to remain trapped forever, I could never abandon it once I was under its influence, dazzled by the resplendence of its genuine elegance. It was then that I acquired, as noted above, an acute awareness of beauty and of the refined external attributes that must surround a life which seeks to be fully alive. As a result of my deep contemplation of the symbols of this new religion-the two prized pairs of shoes resting on a velvet cushion, their little altar covered by a crystal cloche- I gave up the habit of eating faster than anyone else at the table, using only my knife. Lucidly and in full consciousness of what the step meant for me, I began to employ a fork, and my former practice then seemed to me (and in fact is) a barbarity that, inexplicably, I had never before noticed. I don’t mean that I’d never heard anyone condemn it, only that I was incapable of grasping that implication. The same thing happened with many other innocent vices of mine which are less graphic and harder to explain, but which, when I finally became aware of them, struck me as equally grave.
Some of those habits turned out to be so deeply rooted that I couldn’t shake them off even at the apogee of my well-dressed Blue Period, a period marked by the knowledge of what a linen shirt bearing the Dior label really meant. One such habit was pissing in the sink-a great convenience when you’re of average or above-average height. It still makes me feel a certain insuperable guilt, even now that I’ve learned, in a work by M.K., that this bad habit is widespread among Czech physicians. As I read, I was intrigued by just how large-scale a phenomenon this obviously was and said to myself, “It’s not just Czech doctors who piss in sinks.” I know of more than one classmate from my scholarship years, when life was simple, who still does it. But I don’t- at least not at home. And I take great pride in that fact.
2 “in the hope of making a few purchases.” Not long ago I had a dream about Marina. I saw her very clearly, with all the precision of dreams. Our relations seemed to be the same as ever: I very much in love, she elusive. Apparently, to judge by certain indicators, our encounter took place in a large department store-an establishment of particularly high rank, for there was a great deal of merchandise. Happy as a child, I went to Marina and whispered in her ear “Look,” and when she turned and saw the wealth that was on display she wrapped her arms joyously around my neck, mute with emotion. That made me very happy because in the brief space of that dream-a brevity of which I was strangely aware-I had a chance to shower her with gifts and thereby gain her favor. On the ground floor of that large store we found all that a demanding woman like Marina could want: lotions to soften the skin, vitamin-enriched creams, depilatory gels, shampoos made from wild berries, cologne sprays, make-up brushes.
Marina floated ahead of me, tossing cosmetics into a bag. Suddenly we found ourselves on another floor and she stopped to pick out a few dresses she liked. A moment of concern ensued because we couldn’t find her size, but then I opened some boxes that were lying in a corner and found what we were looking for. Unable to believe her eyes, she marveled, “Where did all this come from?” Then, without a second’s hesitation she took off her blouse and put on a lovely tailored suit with a little hat to match. While she was trying on a pair of shoes, she asked me in bewilderment, “Why don’t you pick anything out for yourself?” I gazed at her pityingly. By then I’d understood it was all a dream and knew we wouldn’t be taking any of these things home with us. Poor Marina!
3 “water flowed in its lone marble fountain.” One summer I traveled to Leningrad (though given the tone of these confessions I should really call it Saint Petersburg) and saw for the first time the dazzling beauty of that city, with its sea-green gardens and neoclassically proportioned façades. The experience had a great impact on the development of my frivolity, which was nourished by a wide variety of sources and did not fail to exploit the treasures found in museums such as, for example, the Hermitage, to further its growth. This was why-out of what I might call a refinement or purification of my new sensibility’s artistic tendencies-my visit to the art museums of Saint Petersburg was every bit as transcendent as an encounter with a specific personality, and each of the paintings I saw came to be the thousand spiraling faces of that personality, as in a Cubist portrait. The canvases I’d already seen in reproductions, however, did not make as much of an impression on me, or rather, impressed me unfavorably. For which reason I deduced that this kind of advance knowledge-so widespread nowadays-of a painting produces a parallel and very weak (never identical) effect on anyone who has the opportunity to appreciate the original. Hence, perhaps, the predominance of the graphic element in modern painting-an imbalance that has created its own school, which with excellent good taste, and to my great delight, is exploited by automobile designers and glossy magazines, those polishers of modern life. Thus, after several long conversations with Rembrandt, and having passed as if on the rebound through the aesthetics of fashion magazines, I looked at painting and architecture with new eyes, and consequently-this is the point I was trying to make-at life, as well. In this context, I must note the curious phenomenon whereby the charm of the great European museums is doubled in wintertime by the possibility-unique, at that time of year-of seeing extremely beautiful women parade before your eyes stripped of their coats, with their enchanting arms and well-turned legs on display, and with those famous paintings in the background an interaction takes place that is a thousand times more suggestive than the works of art alone. A similar phenomenon occurs outdoors in summer, when the enchantment of a city like Saint Petersburg, with its palaces and parks, is reinforced by the slow saunter of the pale women who wander through its gardens in search of an ephemeral tan. This mixture of apparently disparate things is a very potent stimulant to the frivolous gaze. A naked woman in the flesh, lying in bed waiting for you, does not produce the same effect as another woman seen in profile against a clump of tulips with a vague fin de siècle boulevard in the background.
A year after that trip north, a different man, I went to Havana on vacation. The beauty of that city, which I had never before appreciated in its full measure, left me stupefied. An Argentine girl, whose breasts aided my study of the streets of my native city as we strolled along, confessed to me that this was a good place to live. That’s the key: a city is beautiful, its parks and back streets worthwhile, if the entirety of it helps you live your life without ever thinking of the magnificence or charm of its buildings, simply occupying them, no more. Like mollusks, unaware of the strangeness of the shells that are their garment and home.
4“slender Frenchmen.” I wanted to feel strong and sinewy and devoted more of my attention to physical exercise each day. My body was being refined at the same rate as my soul, and if I could dream for hours on end about a handsome mid-season overcoat, I also went running in the evenings to free myself from excess weight and hypochondria.
During that period I went to an exhibit of books having to do with one of the modern world’s relatively new enthusiasms: bodybuilding. Leafing through the photographs of sweaty men and women who took such care in the display of their physiques, I understood what this said about a life of resort vacations and yachting excursions. Three times a week I went swimming in a heated pool, for which I paid a monthly membership fee. I didn’t do it for my health-the state of my lungs didn’t interest me in the slightest. I never intended to develop a musculature that would be hard to carry around; I only wanted a body that would be loyal to its owner and on which clothing would fit with easy, comfortable grace. Certain things darkened the sky of my happiness. My thighs, which I scrutinized attentively each morning, grew no slimmer, though I tried to run with my weight spread across the soles of my feet in order not to work the thighs too much and render them knotty and aesthetically unpleasing. I also paid special attention to the growth of my trapezoids, not wanting them to start bulging out from the collar of my shirt in too plebian a manner. I ran for an hour every day of the year, and when I reached my goal I would feel tired but euphoric. In spring and autumn I came home with my feet wet from the stagnant puddles. During the summer, a continental dust, the dust of the steppes, filled my lungs. When I felt handsome and desired by women (like the protagonist of the French film) I started wearing a silver bracelet with my name engraved on it. Later I even began to sport a handsome seal ring, also silver, on my finger. No need to state that it was physical exercise which taught me the value of jewelry and the enhancement it confers upon a body. A friend of mine, a hopeless weakling, once asked me, “Why do you wear a ring like that? Those are for old men.” He was not a man. I was; I was strong.
5 “possessed of a vitality as diaphanous as the air” and very lucid, as well. When I started planning to go abroad for my studies I never imagined that in time I would come to think so differently, and that my affinity for philosophical speculation–an affinity that now makes possible this attempt at an apology for frivolity, for my own frivolity–would increase. Well, perhaps what I’m calling “frivolity”-since no more apt term occurs to me-isn’t really that. In any case, for me the word is free of any pejorative nuance. I could call it hedonism (and then I’d have more than one prestigious predecessor) but I wasn’t concerned only with art, in fact art barely interested me at all, while it’s incredible how much importance I came to give to things that are frankly trivial such as elegant handwriting or the contour of a table lamp.
Curiously, that way of living, on the surface of things, did not save me from an experience that was singularly relevant both to me and to the impeccable crease in my pants. It’s quite possible that, chronologically speaking, the incident I wish to speak of was not preceded by any philosophical readings, I no longer remember it with much precision: nevertheless, the power of a well-oiled mind acquired great importance in my eyes one day when, sitting around a table with some friends-drinking tea, I believe-I experienced a sort of mystical illumination, of a purely philosophical nature. God’s nonexistence cannot be demonstrated! It was like a blow to the head, a concussion (the reverberation of which still shakes me) and I immediately communicated it to those present who, of course, did not agree. I was undoubtedly prepared to learn some sort of lesson from a call like this which emerged from the celestial spheres of pure imagination. No invisible voice needed to whisper “Take this! Read!” imperiously in my ear, for my prehistory was sufficient, and for years my preferred readings had been novels by Proust, Conrad and James, works that refined my spirit, sharpened my critical eye, and convinced me definitively that I was well on the way to my objective of fully living out Marina’s flawless skin. Without a face like that at hand, without her delicate shoulders and deep anatomical hollows none of the rest would have made any sense, including the revelation that came during the tea ceremony. Though logically, if I hadn’t familiarized myself with the apparatus of philosophy-because of that experience, and driven by my zeal to get to the heart of all matters-I would never have fully appreciated the extent of my discovery about frivolity: the only truly worthwhile thing.
6 “. . . the song that was our favorite that year.” Six months after I first found myself among the snows, when the imminence of nuclear war was still of greater, much greater concern to me than my need to kiss Marina, one day someone gave me a record of a group of Budapest virtuosi (flute, clarinet, violin and harpsichord) playing Mozart. That Austrian musician was among the plans for “self-improvement” I’d drawn up during my last year of school, long before going to study in Russia, when I was still an exemplary student, conscious of all was expected of me and not yet spoiled*€¦ politically, that is.
I waited to listen to that recording until I was alone in my room. I drew the curtains to create a favorable penumbra (and all the seriousness of an initiation ritual). The first chords sounded. I carefully followed the arabesques of the clarinet, the phrasing of the violin, and already before the end of the first movement I was irritated, fed up, unpleasantly surprised and displeased by this irresponsible superficiality. The key word of this confession had not yet settled in my mind in all its nuances and implications, but the ensemble of sensations which Mozart’s music provoked in me that day could be summed up in an allusion to that word, in its most debased meaning.
Somewhat concerned, I quickly compared his music to Bach’s-with which I was better acquainted-and Bach came out ahead; I found him more familiar in the weight of his erudition, his symmetry, his monumentalism, the seriousness of his proximity to God. A few years had to pass before I, happy to be young and without a speck of dust in my brain, could feel good while listening to the glittering silk of Mozart’s music, music that could justify my shameful inclination toward Swiss chocolates and Dutch cheeses.
Perhaps this is the best moment to dispel any doubts the reader may have with regard to my intellectual seriousness and capacity (I doubt the list of authors included above had much effect). Bach and Mozart are impressive names, but anyone who knows what I’m talking about will not question this much-abridged story of my evolution (from Bach to Mozart, among other things). To someone as preoccupied with the transcendental as my former self was, and as my inner self continues to be, Bach represents the framework of my musical appreciation, a fundamental phase, and as such continues to occupy the same place; except that he, or rather, Mozart, circling him concentrically, covered that skeleton with high-spirited new flesh, and today when I listen to the work of the German Konzertmeister I can easily hear the empty spaces that Mozart would later fill in, lightening the phrase and making it fly. Another no less important aspect of the matter is that the feeling of Lied in the Austrian’s melodies doesn’t have the same predominance in Bach. Perhaps that fact that Mozart was a composer of stylish operas had its influence, I don’t know. But Mozart’s melodies have the grace and repose of a song, something, in my view, that Tchaikovsky, the Russian, learned from Mozart better than anyone else. In that respect, as well as tonally, my near-compatriot Piotr Ilich and the Austrian Amadeus seem like brothers to me, both equally beloved by God. And I, child of an era in which the song, once a minor musical genre, has now displaced almost all others, am, of necessity, very grateful to those two great musicians for their happy union, so beloved by me, of the trivial with the sublime.
And finally, the most important thing. To one who’s not in on the secret or has given it no thought, the force of a hit (the devastating force) is very hard to understand. A pop song-or a bad song, which amounts to the same thing-can have greater social resonance than a manifesto, but its influence is hidden, masked. For orthodox socialism, its effect is that of a deep-planted stealth bomb capable of creating imperceptible mental shifts, turning us away from the ineluctable responsibility of having to achieve something, to make ourselves useful. This influence of the hit is called “ideological deviation” or “ideological penetration.” A very accurate term, since in fact what takes place is a kind of invasion by osmosis of the minds of people who want only to love, suffer, be successful and live comfortably in a present that is clearly delimited between a yesterday and a tomorrow.
You might say there’s no reason that has to conflict with the principles of a new society like ours, but that’s simply not the case. Socialism promotes a kind of asceticism, a doctrine of sacrifice, of the presence of political life in every sphere, which in the final analysis does not deny worldly pleasures (which are even very timidly encouraged by the ideologues) but which subordinates them to a greater goal. Two or three hits and style, youthful irresponsibility, enter into open conflict with such postulates (in what is called “ideological struggle”). Young people, cool evenings, a large helping of ice cream, demand a present that is exciting, brimming over, danceable. The dangers lurking in the shadows are far too numerous-why think about them?
7” . . . gave me a smile.” Stop, fleeting instant! How difficult to put to paper the deep sorrow, the sad evocation of an unhappy love that a song brings to us as it shatters us for an instant! It’s always while we live, and not while we remember the past, that we wish to be granted the grace of an eternal instant. We don’t imagine that Goethe uttered this phrase while reading some obscure poet of the Ming dynasty in the solitude of his study. Only when we’re dancing and living beneath the blue sky do we want to stop time and live it, suffer it, in all of its most hidden recesses.
But time’s nature is inapprehensible, our lives leave it very far behind and, incapable of observing it objectively from the present, we know nothing, in the final analysis, of its fierce passage. Only when we leaf through old fashion magazines do we discover the point at which that humanity, those other people so different from us, entered into contact with eternity. Because the latest style that ordains a certain hairstyle, a sensation of well-being when clad in a made-to-measure suit, or makes us belt out at full volume, with all the exaltation of a gospel singer, the song from the last film we saw, rids us of our fears about what once was and what will be, makes us live in a perfect, orgiastic present. (To put past time and former styles to the test, I have a scratched-up old record of songs I once loved, a test record. Every time I listen to it there’s an immense space, a void, between my current self and the song that only yesterday filled me to my very limits. The bass notes, once so succulent and pectoral, are no longer the bass notes of today; the high notes are scandalously shrill, the voices cloying, the keyboard reedy. What’s missing? one wonders in astonishment, hearing this colorless music, and the answer is: life is missing. Life seasoned with the salt of frivolity, which is the water we add to those songs, as if they were packets of dry soup mix, to make them appetizing . . . ) Our idea of the past, of universal history, is incomplete without this small adjustment. This sensation of well-being between printed fabrics, the feeling of a today which already tomorrow will be a somewhat embarrassing yesterday, when we see ourselves reflected with frightful fidelity in old photographs and reproduced in the potpourri of oldies streaming from the radio, is the principal engine of existence, and is trivial, but then so is life.
No one was better acquainted with that truth than Marina, at an animal level, of course, but not for that reason any less fully. To live with her would have been my happiness, even despite our volatile reconciliation. Some afternoons we’d spend hours looking through catalogues: we lived in the beautiful houses, we dressed in the superb attire of the people in the photographs, we sipped aperitifs next to unfathomable blue swimming pools as a beautiful Rolls awaited us in the background. On that night of dancing which concludes my brief tale, once we were back in my room, without any of the luxuries of those lives at hand, I turned my attention to Marina. Her smooth belly and beautiful thighs were as perfect as the finest pieces of furniture in the catalogue. Her black hair was intoxicating despite the cheap shampoo she used, and it rippled as smoothly as the hair of slender models in TV advertisements. I’m not embarrassed to repeat it: we were very superficial for a feeling as awkward as love. Our orgasms were very self-conscious; at that moment we knew we were being viewed from outside, filmed by an omnipresent movie camera that could confer all the luster of Technicolor on the gray of our lives. If Marina were to meet me today, thoughtful and badly dressed, she wouldn’t want to spend even one night with me. It would be entirely pointless to try to impress her with this study, compiled during an interruption of my dandyhood. The most effective approach would be to abandon my baggy pants and my philosophizing aspirations. And I will advise the reader who takes too seriously the Japanese habit of breakfasting on the flesh of an endangered whale or the universality of the parliamentary political system-in short, everything I’ve avoided mentioning here, and which I make a great effort to sidestep every day-to do the same. I see this, above all, as a result of the incongruence of certain dimensions. Our life is as quick as a flash of lightning between two darknesses and in that brief space of light this red is the only thing I’ve found that is endowed with a life all its own, truly existing, within reach of the hand.