The Story of My Purity

Your money or your soul

Ill Form and Void Full
Laura Letinsky, Untitled #8, 2011, From the Series Ill Form and Void Full. Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.

Napoleon. Nineteenth-century mental asylums were overrun with men convinced they were the Emperor of the French. Roaming about in crumpled, ungainly tricorne hats, they gave orders to invisible troops in their institutions’ English gardens. These men weren’t aberrations, just outliers on a spectrum of absolutely normal human behavior. We all have to believe we’re somebody. If we don’t give ourselves a face, if we don’t occupy some position, all action becomes impossible. At times we go too far and end up in an asylum, but generally speaking we can’t do without imagination.

For instance, I was at my parents’ house, Christmas dinner 2005, and I had to ask my father for a loan. What kind of person was I? A Sergey Brin? A Julien Sorel? A Trump? Someone who, given a hundred-thousand-euro loan, could move the world? Or was I one of those sons of successful men, their faces swollen from seaside vacations, with childlike smiles and the lumpy bodies of unfinished men? One of those aristocrats who drown in their own pools, or the Kennedy kids, the Agnelli kids, with their vices, their complexes? Because my father was rich. And not even excessively so—he was happy rich, without serious obligations to the world. And not only was he happy rich, he was also the master of his own destiny, because when he was young he’d used his considerable talent to rescue his father-in-law’s fortune and make a name for himself. In the late ’70s, when the furniture market threatened to tank, aggressive new dealers started coming out of nowhere and selling off their stock at ridiculously low prices, but my father saw it coming and advised his father-in-law to get out of the business in time. So my grandfather cut a deal with these new low-cost entrepreneurs and diversified. What he lost from one pocket was returned to him in the other, and the damage was limited. My father became Achilles, Hector, an unblemished hero.

It was none other than this charming and self-confident man whom I had to ask for a loan, I who was the soul of drab. My belly strained against my sky-blue tailored shirt, my stooped back ached, and as if that weren’t enough, I always kept my eyes to the ground. Just like Jesus when he looked down and prodded the earth with a stick instead of facing the crowd baying for the adulteress’s stoning: I followed his example.

What with my stoop and my belly, my wife had lost interest in me and my body, and I in turn had lost all confidence in myself. She didn’t show the least interest even though I was tall and had the broad shoulders of a champion—prevailing over it all were the two startled little folds beneath my butt cheeks, excesses of fat, of physical resignation. And on that Christmas Day as well my thighs swelled the pants of my suit, the suit I was married in. Why an elegant suit for Christmas dinner? As everybody knew—because I took every opportunity to explain—it was my custom, on holy days, to set aside my usual shabby dress, my unlikely argyles and gray corduroys, and put on my good suit, so everyone would understand that I cared only for the Lord; only for Him did I get dressed up, and certainly not to please women. With the anxious and contrite air that always clung to me, especially at my parents’, where I insisted on saying grace before meals even though it had never been the custom in our house, with that anxious and contrite air and my gray English-style suit, it was impossible for me to make allies when I needed them. A good Christian should be more accommodating, but I told myself: The times are what they are, and if you speak softly, people won’t understand that the Lord is their shepherd. The state of things really bothered me, and everybody knew it and gave me a wide berth, refusing to take me into their confidence, denying me their loving touch. I gave anyone who found fault with the opinions of Pope Ratzinger a mouthful, and turned up my nose if anyone made dirty jokes; in short I was totally committed, in my own way, to becoming a saint. Go and read the lives of the saints, they didn’t mess around.

Now even a saint, when asking his father for a loan, has to decide what kind of son he is: one with balls who knows his own mind, or nothing but a big baby who’ll live in the shadow of his parents forever and die still soft. That’s why saints don’t ask their parents for loans and instead choose a life of poverty. But I wanted to change jobs. I absolutely had to change jobs, I was going crazy. I had to give up my position as an editor at the Catholic publishing house Non Possumus and look for something less stressful. But as you’ll gather from the conversation in which I ask Daddy for money, at the time I had just the sort of job to make people shake their heads and say, “You made your bed . . .”

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