European Diary

In Praise of Having Not

A splendid Traviata at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo the other night—with its colorful gambling scene at the close of the Second Act, when a jealous Alfredo wins an armful of banknotes only to throw them in Violetta’s face—made me think of nothing.  Nothing as an end in itself, nothing as the animating spirit of all sublunar existence—nothing, if you like, as a way of life.

I neither speak nor think as a nihilist, and ever since I resigned from the world to become a writer the most disinterested tag to characterize me would be a sybarite fallen on hard times.  Unlike Violetta, I am not troubled by conspicuous consumption.  Yet one cannot help seeing things, at least when they are something other than glaringly obvious; whoever has glimpsed the irrationality of love can scarcely go on pretending that the world is flat; whilst memories of past dissolution make for an effective eyewash.  Thus one perceives, for instance, that poverty is a kind of wealth, a fabulous hereditament of the indigent.

Language itself seems to militate against such a proposition.  We call objects of love dear precisely to spare ourselves the trouble of drawing the line between the metaphysical and the physical, between the heart’s desire and the frightful expense.  Yet the writer bets against language, dissociating its received ideas like most other generalities that come his way,...

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