ONE DECADENT LIFE
THERE WILL BE NO ARTISTS
[The Final Chapter of Part One]
Analysed, reason is raving.
Feeling, examined, is pain.
What heaven were to hope for a doubt of it !
Life is anguish, insane ;
And death is … not a way out of it ! *
The sky was lightening hesitatingly, as though seriously considering whether or not another day was worth it… or if the earth should be abandoned to twilight, once and for all and for its own good.
The rattling can of one lone derelict, working on the first few cents of the day was the only trace of the importunate seethe that would be Fourteenth Street in a few hours’ time.
As Angelique gave the man a dollar, David wondered aloud, “Why do they go on?”
“However feeble or degraded it may seem to us – even such as he still anticipates the possibility of some pleasure.”
“What good will a dollar do?”
“What good won’t a dollar do?”
They came to the twenty-four-hour pizza parlour at University Place, which was closed. Both of them wanted ‘a slice,’ and kept going along Fourteenth. There is something about pizza, after an all-nighter…
Three bums were warming their hands at a trash-can fire, and passed a pint bottle. The sky tried to go on brightening, but the day would be cloudy.
David took a heavy drag off his cigarette and threw it in the gutter, “Is pleasure enough for you? I think I may finally be over it. These past weeks, I’ve been feeling positively alien.”
“From another planet?” David sighed. “Just a metaphor for alienated. Once you begin to Work again – really WORK I mean – you will come back to us. “
David wondered at how she’d perceived he wasn’t working. How did she know that? She hadn’t even been to his studio.
“Tell yourself this present aridity is one necessary part of your genius.”
But the genius was on junk and snapped at her, “You are so positive and I fear naive. To begin again —- you think it’s so simple. Start Working again? LIFE ITSELF is now forbidden me.”
Angelique denied it, and he insisted, “Because you still have some feeling for humanity. But I afraid I am no longer amongst you.”
“So, use solitude as a discipline.”
“Is that what you do?” She took it as a slap…. and David felt furious… “I hate to be alone. When I’m alone, it seems as if something is punishing me.”
“Or could that be — SOMEONE?”
David was stunned to hear her refer to God.
“Let’s say solitude is being imposed on you, from without, as you say, as a kind of punishment…do you really think, if that is so, that you are really able to escape … His or Her Hand?”
It was clear to her that was the entire issue: heroin was used as the perfect escape from one’s ultimate Will.
While he was far behind, only quailing, as in: What if there really IS a God?
He resisted the pull and lashed out —
“I just want the world to end,” David insisted, gesturing at the mercantile avenue, “Don’t you? Do we require the trash of Fourteenth Street? Does it really matter if any of this, up to, and including our feeble intellects, is wiped from the face of the earth?”
They stood on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth; from off the Hudson a stiff breeze pierced them. The streets seemed awash in garbage; every kind of trash swirled, as if in glee. The vision was desolate: the city old, and dirty, and cold.
“Well, ah, yes David — it matters. But no, it does not matter. Something else would come to take its place.”
“You think so? But anyhow… we must act upon the insult. The insult, to have been reincarnated into this Age of Mediocrity!”
She felt utterly irritated by this anthem of his, “If, when, we factor in reincarnation — David you understand — you have CHOSEN to come back now.”
“I can’t believe that. First of all, how could I have CHOSEN those hideous parents? And these times, my situation? You can’t tell me I chose this! My existence is intolerable!
“For starters, do you understand that if my next show is not a success, I may actually have to get a job?”
That spoiled squeal, his sense of privilege, the infantilism … this aspect of his character repelled Angelique.
She gestured at the next derelict, fast asleep in his cardboard cocoon, “Well, at least you are capable of working.”
“No, that’s just it, I’m not! I’m not capable! It will kill me as an artist, you don’t understand. I would have to leave Manhattan. I’d be ruined, I’d never recover from it.”
“You’re getting hysterical … you will go on Creating, you will Overcome the Trials of the Marketplace again.”
“I don’t want to.”
They have been up all night, and it is now fully dawn, which in December comes as late as seven o’clock. Sunday morning, no commuters rushing, stores closed. Angelique is exhausted from working all night, and David’s heroin is wearing off.
But still they kept on, the talk was its own engine, the communication essential in some way beyond either of their vehicles. They were sounding out into their world, and though it seemed only they heard what was being said, it was not so. For this Medium brings it back, to tell the tale.
She is dressed half in black leather, the rest starchy white, the latter a bit crushed and grubby. We see a long white linen skirt, a black leather corset… He has on his rumpled, dirty black silk Italian suit. She is wrapped in her big white coat, on top the fur toque. He’s bare-headed, in an old cashmere of his father’s. The man hasn’t had a bath in three days. He is unshaven and shaking; she is caked with make-up, and her lipstick line wobbles.
From the outside, their coupling is incongruous. Few may imagine what’s really at Work here… and neither do they care about being Known, or Seen, or Understood — except to one another.
“I mean … what I wanted to show you … is the only place where the slightest vestige of my former Will can still be made manifest.”
Now they stood on the north side of Fourteenth Street, and Angelique’s gaze was directed to a building on the opposite side. At street-level were the usual vulgar shops full of horrible toys, cheap clothes and bright decorative junk. On the second floor a huge, dusty picture window displayed stacks of brown cardboard boxes.
Stone there dominated the aluminum expediency of the modern shopfronts — old, intricately carved stone. So that around the dull boxes was a scrolling picture-frame of grimy cornucopeia and languid, smiling cupids, holding aloft garlands of black.
And Angelique’s eye travelled up, up, to gasp at the eighth, ninth and tenth stories, where gloried a small Greek temple, fronted with columns of rare green and red marble, supporting a classical pediment. The windows of this Temple were plywood – but still, a Temple! Small, abandoned, and lovely, hovering ten stories above the ghastly avenue.
David was sick, and disturbed, but rightfully so. “Outside that room–” and he pointed to the Temple, ten floors above 14th Street, “nothing means anything anymore.”
“Of course ‘nothing means anything, haven’t you learned that by now? ‘Life is meaningless. But, so what!’ ” she quoted. “Our lives are NOT important.
“So, since we have decided NOT to kill ourselves, we must find happiness in trying to be of service to others.”
He stared at her. With amazed disgust, “I never would have imagined such a thing falling from YOUR –”
“From the mouth of a decadent, the mouth of a whore?”
“I would never say THAT darling, it’s just –”
“You should understand, my dearest… that We who have lived most constantly in the Underground are hungrier than anyone else for the Ideals of Beauty. Because all we really have ARE those Ideals.
“They are the one Reality that stays with us, and it costs nothing — but self-discipline. “
“St. Angelique, martyr to literature!”
“My crimes have supported my literature habit.”
Now David crossed the empty street, fishing in his pocket for a key. The address was Fifty-Two: 52 West 14th Street, near Sixth Avenue.
Between the two shops was an almost invisible wooden door, barred with grille, graffiti’d and begrimed. The lock was giving him some trouble, and to her glamourized eyes it seemed he was breaking through encrusted ancient layers of paint… now they stood in a narrow, stuffy vestibule, leading to a stairwell that she perceived as filthy before the door slammed shut.
Did she hear him drop a bar across it? She stood in perfect darkness, felt his hand on hers –
“Go carefully now … ten flights up. There is no elevator.”
The entire building was uninhabited. The vagaries of Manhattan real-estate had allowed, via arcane tax-breaks, the structure to remain unviolated but for the cleverest, most insinuating of squatters – the artist. Basil had rooted out this aerie; it was David’s only legacy from his friend.
Accumulated commercial trash gave way to nothing but Manhattan’s sooty black dust. Bright crusts of morning sunlight came in stingily through painted-over windows and the grime of decades. Angelique’s limbs were strangely leaden, a lugubriousness clung to her in the dust … the dust of hundreds of years. The air, though dense, seemed charged, as she rose through a hermetic suspension, percolating up, above the world —
They stopped halfway up to rest. His match flared at the tip of a cigarette. A long, slightly tremulous sigh escaped him, and his voice reached her at a slow pace, as if from an infinite distance –
“You want to know me… you think you do. But if it is true that I WAS your murderer? If I am that seventeenth century priest… why come anywhere near?”
The ‘parasite word’ rose to her lips… because she still loved him, of course. But she could not say it. It had never been allowed.
But she tried, “Perhaps because — you did murder me.”
“Did I? So why wouldn’t I kill you again?”
“Is that why you’ve brought me to your dungeon?” Angelique managed to convey a calm she did not feel.
He ground the cigarette into the floor, “No…” a sudden nervous laugh startling her.
They went on climbing, Angelique clinging to the bannister, going by feel and trust. When she looked up, completest darkness gave her the sensation of an endless space. But it was an infinity enclosed by something malevolent.
“It IS odd that I don’t hate you now,” she managed to gasp, “especially since everything in the story is true.”
“Since? ‘Since?’ So you really believe in your own work, then?”
“Ah yes of course, I mean,” she was gasping for breath in the close atmosphere. Above she heard him working more locks. “I mean, Salvatore, do I have to hate you…?”
“No, I don’t want you to. Marie never hated me,” his voice pressed down upon her, “Marie always loved me, no matter what I did –
“…and, Marie, you still do.”
She gained the top of the stairs and rushed at him, to embrace him – but met only retreating footsteps.
She was within a wide open space where every wall had been taken down. In the area of her heart she felt a strong constriction, her throat closed, she tried to cough.
The southern windows were not boarded, allowing the pallid morning onto the dusty floor. But this lack of light did not account for the eclipse of spirit in Angelique.
David walked the perimeter of the room, lighting candles as he went. “No electricity,” he explained, “which has turned out to be salutary. Modern electricity does interfere with the subtler magnetic fields that we developed here.”
An entire wall of frescoes leapt to life. Angelique cried aloud as she recognized the scene. The dried-blood-red of the Odeon’s banquettes! And its golden walls, and every familiar personage from that especial year: 1980.
All those would-be fabled would-be geniuses, addict-artists, great debauchees – their contemporaries –
“My superstars,” David indicated them grimly, “from that era of unprecedented sexual indulgence, never before manifested on such a massive scale. Not even at Pompeii.”
Angelique did mark something, early-Christian or Byzantine, in the formal postures of the figures, as they sat ‘At Suppertime in Hell,’ David introduced them.
The flat, candid use of earth-tones and bright cadmium blue… but there was too a certain devilry in the heavy black band around each figure, a Munch-like shadow-self, black aura of the poor in heart.
The only still-living character amongst them was Tere; Tere, glamorously sullen, pouting in the face of doom.
David had painted her twice – once as a woman, facing the viewer, a second time in a mirrored column beside her, her profile that of a faun-like boy, Angelique marvelled at the time the painter had taken to paint her white-golden hair — “You’ve never exhibited this style – you really should!”
David snorted, “I guess you don’t understand art history. Don’t you see, this style is a total anachronism? Do you think I would be taken at all seriously if I showed portraits?” He groaned sarcastically, “Well that IS something I could always do … Paint Park Avenue beldames in Chanel, dandling their poodles!”
To be capable of such virtuosity – and never to be appreciated? Angelique understood all at once the essential tragedy. Genius, reviled by its own age… yes the cliche was pathetic, but like all cliches, true.
His carelessness towards his genius as well showed in the fact that he had painted directly upon the crumbling plaster, over the peeling wall-paint. As if there were no call to preserve such work. “Let the vision crumble with the edifice,” the painter murmured, reading her thoughts, “This is my Pompeii, waiting for its volcano.”
“The Villa of Mysteries,” she evoked that buried Temple of religious sexual Rite.
“Yes – and a poor Villa it is for us, this dirty, abandoned place… where every Rite has been debased. Poor Aleister Crowley! He imagined that the Schools of Initiation would be reopened — poor dreamer!
“He believed so earnestly in a new age of Magick!
“Initiation? Into what Secret could we possibly still be initiated? Everything is known, every secret has been plundered.
“In this degenerate age, to have knowledge of a thing like God makes a person only banal.”
The dead stares of his painted Company seemed to elucidate his point. Guttering candle-flame made their flat eyes flutter and seem to jeer, as David went on ranting, “And that ancient inducement, ‘To Know Thyself’? HA! That pigsty? No, no, NO! Now our purpose is to devolve to the animal, to become more stupid, more base. To simply breed and feed.”
“Oh please you can’t mean that! Your spark!” she murmured, resisting the grind of cynicism, “Your spark! You must keep it safe.”
David caressed the paint, ran his hands along the lineaments of the manifest bodies. “I know, you are right, I don’t really mean any of it. At heart…
“But aren’t you afraid? Don’t you see it coming? The mediocrities shall inherit the earth – our kind is dying off –
There will be no artists.”
Angelique settled herself into reverie… David smoked a couple of cigarettes. He could offer her no refreshment but water in that aery dungeon. They had no heroin, they had no pot. Outside the horn of a car blared, a petty urgency … it might have been a thousand years ago it sounded.
They were both nervous wrecks, but there was something more important…
“My Salvatore of the novel was a defrocked priest, an impostor.” David smiled as Angelique continued, “I was never able to clear up the details. of how he came to be accepted into one of the greatest courts of Europe.”
“And I imagine you would like me to help you figure that out… what a little surgeon you are! Don’t you ever stop digging?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to aggress.”
“There is something to be said for doing nothing. Every moment needn’t be turned to utility, or profit!”
Angelique fixed her eyes upon his angrily wavering shape; a beam of light beneath his chin suggested the white collar of a priest…
And suddenly he was answering her, “It had to do … with the King, you know. With Louis’ fascination with things magical. The truth is he was a thoroughgoing Satanist. It amused him that his Court would receive Communion from a heretic and murderer – this Father Salvatore.”
“I don’t agree with you… Louis was actually quite devout.”
“Since when… are religious fervour, and Satanism… mutually exclusive?”
To the front of the loft he led her, and drew back long draperies of black velvet. Between two boarded-up windows stood an Angel, a painted, winged perfection, his Angel, ten feet tall, a thing of androgynous beauty. Around its head glowed a spiky halo molded from gesso and thick with gold-leaf. Full and tranquil aquamarine eyes followed the viewer bemusedly.
“The Princess Ax-Eld-Entl’A – an Egyptian goddess. She is known by the scholars of the British Museum as The First Alexandra.”
The Angel gazed knowingly over their heads, as Angelique, in terror, stared into Her face. It was her own face – her own, with Marie’s black hair!
David turned and faced the Angel, “You are Her door. Through you, she may at last come to me.”
“And if – when she comes to You – what will happen then?” Angelique asked of her beloved gently… but as she took a step towards him, he cringed away –
“You’ll hurt me!”
She stopped, stunned by the passionate energy… But her mind, leaping from high gear, switched over into violence; so broke she the restraint and was finally embracing him.
She clutched at him in a sudden void. But they did not draw away from each other. They were as they had always been, in a strange suspension, extremely calm and still. Attraction countered by repulsion left both in limbo.
David then reacted, “Marie – we would only be repeating ourselves. You know that. The point is now for you to loathe me. For I would hurt you – again. You know that,” he repeated, drawing away from her.
“It’s true that I love you.”
Oh God she’d said it – the parasite word! Two hundred years flew by, she was falling, she fell alone, David’s knees buckled and almost dropped her.
His voice came to her from afar, “I find … your love … most FLATTERING.” She ground her teeth in the humiliation of it. “But the point now is … TO RESIST.”
But neither did he move to leave – and she assuredly did not want to leave him. Yet they were nervous now, to be alone together, in what they may not have yet realized as their tragedy.
But they did not part, staying up talking through that morning, most of the afternoon, and into the evening, nourished by a few bottles of water. She clarified her ‘service to others’ as an oath to present. and preserve Beauty — for is that not the highest service? And he pronounced again his Swedenborgian theory that present life was not a hell, but The Only Hell. Together thus they knit the elements of their private Kabala … in discourse both trivial and exalted.
Around four o’clock, as the day darkened, Angelique was watching the painter, watching his masterpiece… as she worked on the start of a poem. The sun, disheartened, crept out of the sky again. Its light upon the sorrows of the world had changed nothing. And for a while together the two Angels slept, each upon their separate couches. They dreamt of nothing. Their lives were dreams.
* Opening quote is from the heroin poem
in Aleister Crowley’s
Diary of a Drug Fiend
END of PART ONE of ONE DECADENT LIFE
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TERENCE SELLERS 1985-2015