Bridge 16

September 25th, 2010

Bridge 16–THE SYMPOSIUM

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The appetite for immortality

Is strong enough to gobble up the rest.

We like to dream of love, say love must be,

Of all the things life offers, first and best.

“But love of what?” philosophers then ask,

“Of Beauty?  Beauty may not last a week!

The beautiful you think you love’s a mask

For something more profound you really seek.”

Diotima told Socrates the truth–

“You love not what you have but what your soul

Still wants . .  . to find eternal life . . . in youth!

To procreate in beauty is your goal”–

Thus Plato left the image of his mind

Imprinted there for all young minds to find.

[Spring, 1963]

“The more you reflect on it, Jack, the harder it is to avoid pity as the basic emotion you feel for all of your fellow human beings,” Henry said.  “Those you begin thinking you should envy most, you come to pity most–even want to help.”

I was staring out over the lake, thinking of the Betty from those Shangri-La days–then looked up at the cabin.  “Yet we  can’t help them, can we?   We think we ‘love,’ but ‘love’ turns  into a desire to possess–which we can never do.  And now she’s dead.  Both . . . died right here.  Shot with my gun!”

“The gun you bought to shoot bears with in Alaska.”

“That, luckily, was never fired at a bear.  I was in Japan, but that gun was still here.  And those star-crossed lovers, Betty and Jordan.  What fate brought them together here?”

“There are so many questions, Jack,” Shoko said.

“How I wish we could just have stayed there at Shangri-La.  Betty had started to love the place, too, hadn’t she?


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“One afternoon, about a week after she got there, she sought me out in the garden, where, by then, I was reading my way through all the Japanese literature the countess had in translation, and was up to the Noh plays.  I knew how hyped up Betty had been at first, as she’d responded to Randall’s surprise at the studio, then that first meeting with the countess in this strange new world.  But I’d seen her settle in, too–like the rest of us–to living in a place that seemed almost out of time.  I thought, ‘She’ll soon be joining us in reading these medieval Japanese plays, is already more relaxed than I ever remember her being.’  I told her this as I moved over to make room on the swing, and remarked that the countess should  establish the place as a sanitarium for people from the theatre who needed to unwind, functioning as resident therapist.

“Even Betty’s laugh was more comfortable, very different from what it’d been in Nebraska, as she said, ‘Yes, a remarkable woman.  I see why you’re so taken with her, Jack.  You share so many interests.  And now Japanese literature!’  She picked up the book I’d been reading, looked at it, then put it back down.  ‘And how apt to speak of her as therapist, for I’ve come to talk to you about a session we had this morning.

“‘As you know, when I can’t sleep I may sit up half the night.  I read, or brood about things.  If I’m working on a part, that’s often the best time to get to know the character.  Last night I’d been awake for a while, had gotten up, and was sitting in the armchair next to the bedroom window, just looking out and thinking, about your countess and me.  But then I was distracted by the beauty of the scene.  Across the wide sweep of this valley, I watched the dawn gradually bring color to this garden, the shadows take on sharper definition down below my window on the patio.  This place is beautiful.  You call it Shangri-La?  Yes, I read the book.  And saw the movie.  From my window, I could see past the rolling hills and

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wheat fields to where the highway and railroad cut across the valley, two parallel lines running through random undulation, as headlights gradually went out on cars I couldn’t even hear from this far away.  I could hear a train–one I couldn’t see–echoing in the distance.  A very special experience.  You’ll have to come share it with me some morning, Jack.’

“I tried to judge whether she was making fun of me, but she didn’t seem to be, was caught up in her story.  ‘I’d seen a light go on in the countess’s room, and wondered why she’d be up.  My grandmother was an early riser, but she’d spent her life on a farm, not as an actress, went to bed early–which the countess never does.  Then, as dawn was breaking, her light went off, and I wondered, “Is there enough light now that she doesn’t need it, or did she go back to bed?”  I found myself wishing her a peaceful hour of sleep, imagining her head on the pillow, thinking of her as a dear, good old woman.

“‘But seeing her light go on, then off, made me realize I hadn’t turned my light on at all.  That reminded me of the passage in The Scarlet Letter where Hawthorne talks about how sitting in the dark as the light from the fire and the moonlight mingled was when he got to know his characters best.  I wondered if that was what I’d been doing, trying to conjure up the countess, and her past, sitting there in the dark, to have my dark imaginings gradually fade from mind as it became light . . . until I was left with the harmless image of an old woman asleep.  Hardly much to my purpose.  The countess I’ve met is such a tranquil old lady I’ve begun to wonder if the stories of her wild youth are really true.  I was also surprised by my own spontaneous affection for her,  conscious of how deeply her temper must be working on me.

“‘I thought, “Well, here I am . . . but why?”  If I’m to portray the countess as a young woman, how does observing her as an older woman help?  I should be studying old movies,

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pictures in magazines, talking to people who knew her then.  She says, “No hurry,” but I’d better get busy soon–or I’ll be too old for the part.  You’ve said you feel that way at times.’

“‘Yes, that I need to get to work–but after I finish reading these Noh plays.  The place, and woman, are seductive, and that can be frustrating.  I feel like I’ve become a lotus eater.’

“‘So I was pondering just who this countess was I should be coming to know.  I’ve been told I look much like she did at my age.  So good.  And she’s told us a few stories from those wide-open early years in Hollywood which have taken me back to my own young dreams–to be the queen of the silver screen!  She’s such a good storyteller.  But I still haven’t found an identity that I feel that I, as an actress, can assume.

“‘Then I heard a noise in the hall that curtailed my reverie.  Who or what could it be?  Christine’s cat?  That cat never prowls my part of the house, even in the daytime.  No, I heard a footstep, then a light but firm rap on my bedroom door.  Do I have you in suspense, Jack?  Who do you suppose it was?’

“‘I don’t know.  Who?’  I didn’t want to spoil it for her.

“‘Then there was a voice, calling my name . . . like an echo out of the past.  It was the countess.’

“‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I was hoping for the ghost of Rudolph Valentino.  What a disappointment!’

“‘Not at all.  Wait until you hear.  “I hope I’m not disturbing you, Betty,” she said.  “I saw you sitting up here by the window, enjoying the dawn, and thought we might talk.”

“‘”Now we’ll see what she has in mind,” I thought.  I told her I’d like that, that watching the sun come up here seemed a stolen pleasure, a vacation I didn’t have coming.

“‘”Of course.  You look out of this window and see a brave new world out there waiting for you–as you mull things over in the dark.  I’m frequently up much of the night, too, reading, or writing letters.  I take it as the sign of a person

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who likes to be alone to think.  But it’s also a good time to talk . . . in confidence.  And here was an opportunity to find out what you’re thinking–perhaps by trading a thought or two of my own.  We might go out into the garden, but the benches would still be damp.  So let’s look out over this lovely scene from your window while we talk.  What do you think?”

“‘”Fine.  I try to imagine what this world must have been like for you at my age . . . when you first came to Shangri-La.”

“‘”That’s Jack’s name for this place, isn’t it?  I like that, try to cultivate that mental state.  So I have reservations about making a film story of my life.  I’ve never seen such a film I thought the subject would be pleased with.  My earlier life was a film story–and this place was much busier then.  President Kennedy’s father sometimes stayed here.  He wasn’t the great lover he thought he was, but certainly helped with my investments–thanks in good part to him I’m a wealthy woman today.  It may be impossible to catch the more interesting parts on film, but I’ve come to like Jack, and to have confidence in him, so accept that we should make the trial.”

“‘”I’ve been wondering how I’m to get to know that woman you were when you were my age?”

“‘”And I’m concerned about someone else pretending to be me–though I’ve pretended to be others often enough.  It’s hard to accept that I’m not qualified to play myself as I once was.  It brings the reality of my age home to me with more force than I’m used to . . . not looking in the mirror for days at a time perhaps . . . and still feeling young.

“‘”But, as I begin to know you, I think Randall was very perceptive in judging you to be the one.  One of the things that appeals to me most in this project, perhaps because it lets me subordinate my own ego, is that I think you might find some important part of yourself in trying to find that me of so long ago.  And, as I talk about her, I’m not sure how useful it will

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be, for my memories are as much a fiction as anything you or Jack may imagine.  It will be Jack’s problem to find a narrative line in my life.  Then you’ll have the problem of character.  Well, who are you?  And why do I begin to see that you are what I was much more closely than I am . . . and both envy you and pity you for it?  Tell me what you think about that.”

“‘I said I was only sure of who I was when well into a role.  She said she knew that feeling, then seated herself so that we faced one another in the early morning light.  We could look at each other, back into the bedroom, furnished in the mode of half a century ago, or out across the valley.  She sat in complete repose for a minute or two, looking out at the scene spread before us, expecting me to go on, I suppose.

“‘When I didn’t, she asked, “Do you think Jack understands you?  That may be as important.  You’re still young and beautiful, and that fools people–for you already know enough of the world not to be easily surprised, or disillusioned.  You, too, have a past to draw upon . . . to find mine.  Nor are you too beautiful.  My beauty, such as it was, was more a matter of presence, or character, than of well proportioned features.  And so is yours.  You have the eyes.  They command.  They entice.  And that dark auburn hair is much the color mine was . . . though they can do whatever is necessary with the hair.

“‘”I know you’ve given striking performances in Ibsen, Strindberg, Shakespeare, from what Randall has told me, from reviews he’s sent, and from Jack.  I’d like to have seen the two of you in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf . . . and Jack says you were a perfect Hester Prynne.  Well.  I played similar roles.  Strong women.  Lady Macbeth.  Cleopatra.  Hedda Gabler.  The pride is there–the character.  But where is your pride directed?  How do you conceive of yourself?  What do you want?  And want for others?  For me?  For Jack?  Much in your relationship to him seems simple to me–but do you

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know why you chose him?  Then chose to leave him?  And leave little Christine with him?  Would it puzzle you if I said that, in terms of our project, your relationship to Christine may finally become more important than your relationship to me?  So, now, tell me about yourself.”

“‘I continued to look out across the valley for a long time.  But when I began to talk it all seemed natural enough.  I guess it was as if I were talking to a therapist.

“‘”Growing up in a European court, you must have been a sophisticated teenager by the time war separated you from your family and turned you into an actress.  We could hardly have been more different at eighteen.  I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, in farming country.  I wasn’t a farmer’s daughter . . . but close to it.  My mother made most of our dresses, and we had our own vegetable garden.  In high school, I was a football and basketball cheerleader, and in the plays.  I worked part-time at the drugstore, and dated boys whose fathers owned farms or feed stores.  I read a lot–stories in women’s magazines, novels–not plays.  It was an adventure to go as far as Kansas City or Denver.  My father was a history teacher in the high school, but left us when I was in junior high.  My mother supported us by renting rooms in our big old house and selling real estate–until she died–when I was in college, shortly after I met Jack.  She sent me to college, not to prepare me for a better-paying job, but to put me in a marriage market with future doctors and lawyers. She warned me against school teachers, advice I frequently reflected upon after I married Jack and he took that job at Wellington.

“‘”But the University of Kansas was a whole new world to an 18-year-old girl from Dodge City–and when I first met Jack I thought he knew everything.  He’d lived in cities, had been in a war, was writing and directing plays, was older.  Eliza Doolittle was the first role I had there, and whether Jack,

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or Jordan, was my Pygmalion, they definitely pulled me into theatre, and I loved them both for it.  So I was in love with Jack when we were married–or before we were married–when Christine was conceived.  But perhaps more in love with who he was, or where he seemed to be going.  And I was at least as much in love with Jordan . . . or the adventure of theatre, ‘Take me to the moon, please.’  To be–why not to be?

“‘”But then I decided Jack wasn’t taking me anywhere.  We went to Wellington.  I felt sidetracked.  I had to get out of there . . . or die.  So I left Jack to go to New York, to Jordan, and . . . I don’t know if Jack told you about Henry.  It was an accident that Henry went with me, but then I came to depend upon him.  When I stop to think about it this way, I wonder if I’ve ever loved anyone.  I took Henry because he was willing to go, and now I’d be happy to have him go anywhere with me.  I want him here, when I’m ready to do anything here.”‘”

“Damning with faint praise . . . ah, Betty,” Henry put in.  “But she did bring me out here.”

“More than once, didn’t she?  And always did want you wherever she was, which is more than I can say–for me or Christine, as Betty went on to explain.  ‘I decided to tell her how I felt about being a mother.  “I may have difficulty explaining this to Christine some day, but I never hesitated about leaving her with Jack.  If he hadn’t been there, I’d have found someone else to leave her with, for I knew that my reality could be found only in the illusions of the theatre.  I hungered and thirsted for it . . . and couldn’t take her with me.  My experience tells me I was right, and I’d leave them again today for a good acting role.  What puzzles me now is why I’m spending all this time here, why I’m even reconsidering my relationship to Jack and Christine–what kind of power you, and your environment, have to make me absent myself for so long from the world of illusion–from my reality.”

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“‘”I think you may have come to a major turning point in your life,” the countess said.  “I remember something of the kind in my own life–a year or so after I’d settled here in California, about the time I realized that a Chaplin or Barrymore might be charming for a weekend, but had nothing permanent to offer.  That’s what I meant by saying you might find yourself in trying to find me.  Have you read any Plato?”

“‘”Plato!  You mean that old Greek who thought poets and actors should be run out of town as a bad influence on the young?  About all I remember is people in a cave who took shadows on the wall for reality . . . the way I do whatever play I’m in.  A philosopher gets out and sees the sun that’s making the shadows, and, when he comes back to tell those people, I think they kill him.  Philosophy wasn’t my best subject.”

“‘”Jack is very fond of Plato, you know . . . as I am.  And, in my opinion, you may be more inclined to philosophy than Jack is.  You’re reading Shakespeare, I know, because I saw you with Troilus and Cressida in the library last evening.”

“‘”In my profession how could I not?  I know the plays I’ve been in, Richard the Third and Macbeth, and Othello, thanks to Jack, Hamlet, thanks to Jordan.  And I’m reading all of Shakespeare now, like Jack is reading Japanese literature.  I chose Troilus and Cressida on his advice, but see I still have over twenty plays left, as I looked down the set on your bookshelf, just above all of those Oriental books.”

“‘”Which are just above the Greeks.  Shakespeare is essentially Greek, I think–not at all medieval, like Spenser, or modern, like Bacon.  He’s close to Plato in philosophy, and Plato, in his creation of the character Socrates, is close to Shakespeare.  Plato wanted to be a dramatist.  His Socratic trilogy, the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, has the pattern of a dramatic trilogy, and the Symposium ought to be classified as drama, with a whole range of memorable characters.”

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“‘”I’ve heard that, that Plato aspired to be a dramatist, and  that then his criticism of Homer, in particular, was largely sour grapes–which is not very admirable.  One of my college professors really hated Plato, called him ‘a damned Fascist.'”

“‘”Well–in spite of that–I’d like to ask you to ‘absent yourself’ from the felicity of Shakespeare for a while to read a little Plato, as one way of trying to know the woman I was in those ‘golden Hollywood years.’  That’s when I began my serious reading of the dialogues.  It helped save me from drowning in the glitter, or released me from the cave, if you like.  I think you may have been in a cave, too, chasing shadows and appearances.  It’s true, in a sense, such illusions are all we have.  Wisdom comes in knowing them for what they are, not in abandoning them.  The rose may only be a shadow of beauty, but is still beautiful . . . by any name.

“‘”You’re an ambitious woman–and a seeker.  It may be time to ask yourself what you’re seeking.  That’s just about where I was at your age.  I hadn’t yet found that finding is not to be.  I hadn’t yet made my peace with the problem of ‘what a piece of work is man’–but was engaged in the struggle.  It seems you are, too.  So I’d like you to read some Plato.  What can it hurt?  Then we’ll talk about it.  And talk to Jack about it.  In fact, ask Jack what he thinks of the idea.  Then, just as you become thoroughly confused, we can begin shooting the film.”  And she laughed again.  But I saw that she meant it.

“‘I asked her if this was a new version of Stanislavski, re-creating the intellectual experience in feeling one’s way into a role.  “One way to think of it,” she said.  “And here’s another.  You discovered the intoxication of theatre with Jack, and still have that experience, don’t you?  You just don’t need Jack for it.  And, from your present sophistication, must recognize the trappings of this illusion for what they are better than he does now, so could be his teacher about some orders of illusion and

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reality.  Why not undertake that?  I’m sure you know Jack loves you.  Go back into the cave and lead him out.  He’ll give you a better script for it.  You might be surprised at the other dividends accruing from that kind of ‘teaching’ commitment.

“‘”You may begin to feel that the professional theatre, too, can be a trap, that, in seeing this, you’re beginning to pass your friend . . . Jordan?  If not, you will.  How well I know that feeling.  Both like the feeling of the confirmed alcoholic, depending on the high of acting and the ignorant adulation it brings, yet knowing that your own spirit thirsts for more–to transcend illusions that have transcended illusions, satisfy higher aspirations, to prepare yourself to play Cleopatra before the audience of the idea of Shakespeare, or of your own soul.  The author who created Hester Prynne said he wrote for the one heart and mind in perfect tune with his own–which he probably knew existed only as his idea.  Still, he wrote for it.”

“‘”I’ve heard Jack say that.”

“‘”You might plan to play me to my satisfaction, if you like–as a working hypothesis.  You have the prerequisites–physical and spiritual–and I’m prepared to teach you.  And I say, ‘Read Plato.’  Begin with the Apology, and we’ll talk about it.  You may transcend the illusion I’m offering you, and have to come back into the cave for me–like a good bodhisattva.  Then we might, as pure ideas, perform together before the Idea of God.  But before you attain that level of truth I imagine I’ll long since have joined Socrates in limbo, or wherever he is these days.  Then you can perform for both of us, or the idea of such an audience.”  She smiled at me.

“‘”I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying, but am willing to play by your rules for a while . . .  here at Shangri-La.”

“‘”That’ll be fine. You may hate Plato more than you did in college by the time we have you on a film set, but I’d like to see you brooding on matters metaphysical.  Jack and I will try

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to use Plato to that end–Jack in the script, if we can convince him to, and I by any kind of provocation I can think of . . . getting some of it into your head, some of it into your speech.

“‘”But, as I recall, the dialogues read like sermons.  So I don’t particularly look forward to this.  I’m not very religious.”

“‘”Nor am I.  And, yes, Mr. Jowett does his best to turn Socrates and Plato into 19th-century Christian gentlemen, but I’ve become very fond of his translations, over the years.  Each must see with his own eyes . . . and he was looking at Plato.”


“‘”But I assume you’ll let me ask questions.  I’d like to challenge what you said about Shakespeare.  I think he was a man of the theatre–ageless, profound–but was not a student of the classics, or a scholar.  I can’t believe he read this Greek philosophy.  Other writers in his time did, I know–Milton, Ben Jonson–which is one reason they’re so hard to read today.  So how can you say Shakespeare is essentially Greek?”

“‘”A good way to begin!  Well, his education was in the classics, though in Latin, not Greek, in the Stratford grammar school.  There are references to classical mythology, to Virgil, and particularly Ovid, everywhere in his plays.  I think he came up to London with two plays in his saddlebags, both modeled on plays by Roman playwrights–Titus Andronicus, modeled on Seneca, heavy with classical allusion, and The Comedy of Errors, modeled on two comedies by Plautus.  That’s what he’d been reading.  But he never wrote a play like either again–neo-classical plays of the kind Ben Jonson wrote his whole career.  Most of his plays are Romantic, but he continued to be much influenced by classical sources, particularly by Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans in half a dozen later plays, and, of course, by Homer in the play you’ve just been reading, Troilus and Cressida.

“‘”More fundamental, his ethics and metaphysics are both Greek–not Christian–not even Renaissance, unless ‘Rebirth of

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the Classics’ is what you mean by Renaissance.  And while his lyric voice is Romantic, the thematic content is likely to be Greek.  The sonnet we recited the first evening you were here . . . ‘The marriage of true minds’ . . . well, love is like that.  Trust an old woman, whose rosy lips and cheeks are long since gone, to know the truth of that.  If Shakespeare didn’t learn it from Plato, it’s still a Platonic idea.  Wait until we get to the Symposium.  Love is not love if it’s subject to time.  But love is, finally, as all the great philosophers have known, the profoundest principle.  To become wise, we must learn to love.  And what is the conception of marriage there?  A metaphor, to be sure.  You indicated that it wasn’t a marriage like yours to Jack . . . which I understand is still legally valid.”

“‘”But hardly a marriage of true minds.  Unless I come to like Plato as much as you say Jack does.  Then our minds might meet before a very different kind of altar.  No, we had something closer to a marriage of true minds before we were married, when we were working together on plays most intensely, when anything either of us did was attended to by the other.  The products of that marriage were Pygmalion and The Scarlet Letter, more truly jointly ours than Christine is.”

“‘”See how Platonic you already are, my dear.  Revive that marriage–to tell my story.  You suggest it has little to do with sex, that Jack and you didn’t have to be male and female.”

“‘”I see what you mean.  In the arts there can be a union of souls, irrespective of sex, giving birth to their child, and that child be more real than a real child . . . like Christine.”

“‘”It is hard to imagine anything more real than Christine, who is such a dear, but yes . . . speaking of this ‘Platonic’ quest of the spirit for immortality.  And must the marriage partner even be alive?  Suppose you fall in love with Shakespeare, who died 350 years ago, or Socrates, who died in 399 BC.  You meet Shakespeare’s mind in a conception of Cleopatra–

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quite different from the historical Cleopatra, whatever she may have been like–and conceive of Shakespeare as seeing his very idea of Cleopatra in you.  Isn’t that a marriage of true minds?  Or, as you think the ideas that Plato thought Socrates thought, the immediate father of his ideas becomes the father of yours as well.  That, too, is a marriage of true minds.

“‘”Here again, sex isn’t important.  The novels of Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf, the poetry of Sappho or Emily Dickinson can be seminal.  And, if you begin to read Japanese literature, you’ll find that the great classical novel, The Tale of Genji, was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, stories from which are picked up in those Noh plays Jack is reading now, just as slices of Homer were by the Greek playwrights.”

“‘”Well, yes, authors are considered immortal, believed to live again as we read their works.  And, if a playwright, we actors actually do bring characters he imagined to life.  There is a kind of miracle of reproduction in that, isn’t there?”

“‘”I like your earlier idea, that there’s a higher reality involved.  Shakespeare had a son, who died shortly before he wrote Hamlet, and two daughters who outlived him, but his line didn’t continue a hundred years beyond his death.  About the children of Plato, or Socrates, I know nothing at all.  And, even if a line does continue, it contains little of the original ancestor after eight, ten, twenty generations.  But the idea, the imaginative vision, is  pure and eternal . . . like love.

“‘”One more thing–then I’ll leave you.  I’m a long way from the young woman you’ll be preparing to portray.  If you manage to recapture her spirit, you will be, at the time you project an image from that huge screen, much closer to being her than I am now.  But I still honor her, and will think of myself as your partner in that procreation.  To put it another way, I hope that, if you and Jack can find her together, I can help the two of you remove the impediments in that marriage

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of true minds.  Then capturing that spirit on film may make it available to others . . . those who can see.  That would be success, you and Jack collaborating to give birth to me . . . as I once was.  Doesn’t that sound like a strange, perverse idea?”

“‘On that note, she left me looking out of my window,  contemplating the full sweep of that panoramic view.  After breakfast I went by the library and picked up Plato’s Apology.  I’ve read it, and, now, here I am to have you explain it to me.’

“I certainly didn’t ‘explain’ it to her, but we did talk about our assignment–about Socrates’ conception of himself and the life of the philosopher.  Then about the countess and some of the things she’d said.  It was clear that she was now committed to making the film–in part because she liked Betty.

“That was also an important turning point in the relationship between Betty and me.  We began to talk to one another a lot, usually starting with the books we were reading, but not always Plato–it might be a Shakespeare play–or Hawthorne, Albee, or Ionesco from our past–or one of the Japanese writers that I was reading.  Still, it was likely to lead us back to our project–defining the countess.  And what we were building through all of that discussion was longer lived than that, gave our relationship more substance than it’d had back in Nebraska–a texture of shared ideas.  We had our problems later, certainly, when Betty thought I was taking too long to get a script written, on a daily basis while we were making the film, when she came between Laura and me again, and then, in the last couple of years, as her relationship to Christine became more complicated.  But we were more honest with one another from that time on . . . more open.  And I like to believe that that was in large part due to Plato . . . and to his modern priestess . . . the Countess Rostovna.

“A couple of afternoons later, sitting in the garden, a habit Betty was beginning to share, we began to talk about why the

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countess was so attracted to Plato.  She’d remarked at lunch that she’d known the dialogues since she was a girl, but that The Symposium, in particular–and Socrates as a mythic figure–had become special to her since settling in California.

“‘Do you think it’s just her European education, with its emphasis on the classics?’ Betty asked.  ‘She loves Ovid, too, you know . . . as she keeps telling me Shakespeare did.’

“‘That’s part of it,’ I answered.  ‘I’ve accepted that The Republic is the greatest book ever written ever since my philosophy professor told me it was–then convinced me by spending most of the semester talking his way through it, a book a week.  But that can’t be all.  It’s the idealism, I think.  She’s not particularly fond of Aristotle.  Nor am I.  We’re both Platonic idealists.  As I was saying at lunch, Sidney made the right synthesis of Plato and Aristotle, affirming that the primary function of the poet is to idealize experience, to improve, not just imitate, nature . . . to transcend it.’

“‘That’s all pretty theoretical, Jack.’

“‘But I believe it!  In fact, I’m just beginning to realize that that’s what I did when you left me–I idealized you!  What the writers of sonnet sequences did, and what the Japanese novelist Kawabata has done with his unobtainable mistresses.’  The countess had suggested I read Kawabata, after Mishima, saying, ‘He’s a Japanese Hawthorne, the same everywhere, but a great novelist, with important themes,’ knowing how much I admired Hawthorne.

“‘You idealized me?’ Betty asked.  I had her attention.

“‘Yes, I did.  As Dante did Beatrice.  As Petrarch did Laura. You remember the note you left on the dresser when you and Henry left for New York–short and to the point, but it contained one comment I’ve never forgotten.  I brooded over it for weeks.  I saved that note, and, for a time, would look at it frequently.  Do you remember what you told me?’

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“‘No, Jack, I really don’t.  I remember wanting to say something that would help you accept that there could be no future for the two of us, to encourage you to turn to your work, if I could, to be happy with Laura, not to try to follow us, but, in any case, to convince you that I intended to get on with my own life and work.  Beyond that, I don’t remember.’

“‘Well, I give it back to you, informed by my  experience, to give you a sense of how deeply you influenced me–by leaving, forcing me to face rejection.  You told me that I should know real life would never offer what was available only in books.  Just a comment in passing, but the more I’ve reflected upon it the more profoundly true it has become.  It is grounded in that literary theory, from Aristotle to Sidney, I was affirming at lunch.  But, more important, it’s true.’

“‘You’re giving me one of your lectures, Jack.  Didn’t you teach a course in literary criticism there at Wellington?’

“‘No, that was a discussion series Henry organized, but I’d  be interested in your reaction as I try to apply this to the way I feel about you now.  The countess was telling us about the Mishima novel she thinks is his greatest, Forbidden Colors, how, in the last chapter, the old author, dying, is talking to his idea of Yuichi, as if it, not the actual Yuichi, were in the room with him.  Let me do that, now, talk to my idea of you.  I’ve done it often enough for it to get me into trouble.  So indulge my whim.  That idealized woman thrives on theory.’

“Betty laughed.  ‘All right.  It may be a challenging role.’

“‘I think of Henry James, and how rich the life of that old bachelor must have been.  How much better he must have known Elizabeth Archer than any man has ever known his wedded wife . . . or any woman he could touch.  And he has a short story I think is priceless, which catches the psychology of this experience exactly.  It’s called “Maud-Evelyn.”‘

“‘I know the story.’

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“‘Do you?  Then you remember that Marmaduke (I love  James’ names) met an American couple traveling in Europe.  They’d lost their daughter, Maud-Evelyn, but weren’t trying to forget her; were keeping her memory alive–but, more than that, were imagining her growing up, as she would have if she’d lived.  Marmaduke gets caught up in their imaginative experience–and finally marries Maud-Evelyn!  Well, you’re my Maud-Evelyn–my Beatrice, my Stella–the idea that gives much of what I value a local habitation and a name.  And how much more comfortable it is to have that kind of imaginative control over your woman.  Then she can’t run away.  Do you know a John Wayne movie called Blood Alley?’

“‘I may have seen it . . . on television.  Set in China?’

“‘Right.  He has an idealized woman who sustains him through everything.  He calls her “Baby.”  “We can make it, Baby.  They can’t break us, Baby.”  The way a martyred saint might have talked to Christ.  I mention that film because of the way it and my idealized idea of you recently crossed paths in my own life.  That’s a story I’ll have to tell you later.

“‘But it’s what the artist has always done. Created his own idealized world, peopled with his own idealized people.  That’s the only way idealized people can exist.  You’ll never meet them in “real life.”  Yet their reality is more intense than that of the “real life people” you meet on the street can ever be.  They’re complete.  They’re virtuous.  They’re yours to death.  They’re whatever you have the imaginative capacity to make them.  And it’s not essential to be an artist to do this–just as you can use a gerund, or alliteration, without being able to define the words, or, as Moliere says, can speak prose your whole life without knowing it.  You don’t have to know what you’re doing for idealization to work.

“‘I like Henry’s definition of “wisdom” as “the affirmation of high potential illusion.”  Any value construct is an illusion–

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any conception of a relationship, particularly those you consider close.  All subject to disillusionment–as we soon learn.  Wisdom is reaffirming the illusion in the face of that disillusionment–since the illusion is  the best, is all, that man can have.  As Conrad has Stein tell Lord Jim, the best you can do is affirm that you’re a hero in the full knowledge that you’re a coward, submit yourself to the destructive element–to the ideal.  For me, you were the destructive element . . . ‘

“‘I was? . . . well thanks, Jack.’

“‘And I submitted.  It’s important to affirm the idea of the purity of your mistress, after you’ve come to full knowledge of the fall, of original sin, and of her fall, as an original sinner.  You remember The Scarlet Letter.  But then you must refine that ideal with all of your imaginative resources.  That’s what I’ve done with you, Betty, taken my idea of you, after the traumatic accommodation to reality you forced upon me, and refined it.  Then I’ve come to live with that . . . happily ever after.  I just begin to realize that now.  That’s no doubt part of what Laura sensed . . . and why she left me.’

“Well I’m not sure how to take all this . . . whether it’s a good thing to be idealized.’

“‘The mistress of the sonnet sequences has always had that problem.  How to live on a pedestal.  You can’t possibly live up to someone else’s idealization.  Men have that problem, too–even politicians.  We want to believe we’ve finally found an honest man, so mythologize a Washington or Lincoln.  The idea my grandfather had of Franklin D. Roosevelt was of a savior who’d brought this country out of the Great Depression, and, later, as a saint leading us to moral victory in a war against the evil forces possessing Germany and Japan.

“‘And you do the same thing as an actress, enter into the role, idealize yourself.  That’s where the real test comes, in fact, in making the transfer, in working on the idealized

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conception of yourself imaginatively, and then giving that dream an order of reality . . . modifying it, living with it, accepting its failings.  It’s like the Chinese traditionally seeing themselves as the central nation, and all others as barbarians on the periphery of reality, or Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell just taking it for granted that Boston Common was the hub of the universe.  All illusions . . . but functional illusions.’

“‘Well, Jack, I’m pleased to have provided the grains of sand about which these pearls of wisdom could accumulate.  But now, please, finish your tea.  All this talk has generated another kind of thirst in me.  Let me be your destructive element again, if I may.’  Then she took my hand and led me back into the house and up to my room, where, in the middle of the afternoon, she refuted Plato, Sidney, and all of my best theory, with a passion as open and genuine as that she’d given expression to beneath the scaffold as a college girl.  Then she moved her things into my room, and we were back together again as man and wife.  I thought of Byron’s lines in Don Juan, ‘Plato! Plato! you . . . have been, at best, no better than a go-between,’ as I discovered that even an idealist can be convinced, under the right circumstances, that there’s some- thing to be said for the ground upon which the ideal is based.”

Henry nodded.  “Even from my distant perspective I could see that Betty had changed, Jack–was a different woman when she came back with Jordan, and that there was a mysterious power drawing her back here to California.  To be candid, I think it was more the countess than you, but you’ve convinced me that you were the medium, for you and Betty did give birth to that character . . . first as an idea, then as a marvelous film . . . which was no mean achievement.”

Shoko thought about that for a moment, then added, “But if I, too, might challenge your Platonic theorizing, I still think your greatest mutual achievement with Betty is Christine.”

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Assignment for Bridge 17:

Read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and/or the short version of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.




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