The Incurable Virtue
By Laura Riding, 1935
Emile Saint-Blague had been a lively, versatile painter in his youth, but he had abused his energy by painting too many pictures; so that in what might have been the ripe period of his art he had nothing left but ideas. A man who has nothing left but ideas may be of great service to his friends, but he is of no use at all to himself. Emile was certainly an inspiration to his friends.
He had inherited a little money at just about the time when he had found himself physically exhausted by painting. And so he was an object of respect, not of pity—as he might have been if he had been poor as well as idle. Nor was he really idle: he was continually thinking about things. Every evening after ten he gave supper in his studio and talked about life in an interesting, informed way. His friends ate and listened and gathered in phrases and argumentative points and were thus able, in their turn, to talk to people sophisticatedly, gliding intelligently from one prejudice to another.
Emile kept in touch with contemporary politics, science, literature and philosophy and threw over his friends a cloak of protective verbiage. He was not only their guiding intellect, he was an angel. He had risen beyond the egotistic creative plane which they inhabited, and lived, so to speak, posthumously, looking down on their innocent activities from a benevolent vantage of ideas. Ideas are the old-age of art. Artists have to keep young; they must not think too much—thought is death, while art is life. Such was Emile’s viewpoint.
Emile’s friends learnt from him the meaning of intelligence, without having to be actively intelligent themselves. They learnt to be grateful to the rest of the world, the non-artists, for having worries, for being elders. If nobody worried, life would certainly come to a standstill; there would be no artistic stimulus to irresponsibility and youthfulness. Emile was an elder, but he had once been young. Other people, the non- artists, were born elders. The wisest course was for the young to be grateful to the old and to show their gratitude by seeming to understand how important it was to have worries—instead of behaving as if worries were a disease. It was this kind of delicacy that sold art; people liked to think of pictures as tributes to their intellectual superiority. It was not the way artists painted but the way they behaved that determined the commercial status of art.
Emile was good. He did not lend his friends money or, beyond providing inexpensive light suppers, help them in any tangible way, but he mothered their minds. He lived for them and was proud of them—not of what they did, but of their wordly discretion. He liked to feel that they did not make boors of themselves in the society of the mature. His acquaintances—besides his real friends—were all very knowing people, old rather than young characters. With these he sometimes lunched or dined, but only to exercise his ideas; he did not form or maintain friendships outside the immediate field of his mothering interests. His real friends knew that he lived only for them. No one must ever say anything against Emile. They called him ‘poor Emile’, as a reminder to themselves that no one must ever say anything against him. Emile was good. He lived for them. He spoiled them. He carried them along from one revolution round the sun to the next, taking upon himself all the nausea and strangeness of the movement. Women have performed something like this service for men, making homes for them in which they could escape from the sickening memories of their daily contortions in the giddy gymnasium of life. Emile was even tenderer than a woman. He softened for his friends the reckless variations of nature and the harsh progress of time. They were aware of nothing except faint, pleasant impacts against themselves of these otherwise terrible forces. Emile wanted his friends to feel mentally pampered, and himself to be their pamperer. It was his incurable virtue. It is also a curious fact that none of his friends ever married; which is a thing that happens only when men are really successful. Emile’s friends all wore a pampered manly air. They worked hard and prospered gracefully. They were absorbed in their art, but they knew their way about the ordinary streets of human experience. And the clue to it all was Emile.
Then, one day, Emile was put in prison. He had run down and killed a young unemployed shop-girl in the Bois de Boulogne. He had been reading and driving at the same time. The young girl did not seem to have a family or friends, but, all the same, Emile was put in prison. He was not put in prison for long, because he was undoubtedly a respectable person and by birth a Breton, and Bretons were known to be eccentric. The papers had first referred to him as ‘The Reading Motorist’, and later, during the trial, as ‘The Artists’ Socrates’. His friends testified warmly to his wisdom, his generosity, his importance to them. Emile gave interviews to newspaper men, expressing himself freely on current topics. The jury found him guilty of ‘abstracted’ driving, and the judge sentenced him in very flattering language. “Here is a distinguished gentleman of leisure,” the judge said, “whose enthusiasm for culture has made him the unfortunate instrument of the death of a young girl who could not, in any case, have loved life too well.” Not wishing to weaken the admirable influence of this distinguished gentleman on his friends, he was sending him to prison for two months only, as a friendly warning to eccentric drivers; he hoped that this forced retirement would not be disagreeable to a person of philosophic temperament.
But Emile did not like being in prison. He could not get at books and papers. He missed his evenings with his friends, who came to see him faithfully on visiting days, but who could not be expected to think of him in quite the same way as before. They spoke of him as if, on entering prison, he had ended another period of his life. “What will poor Emile do when he comes out of prison?” they asked themselves. They thought of a voyage to England, for Emile held the English in great admiration as a nation whose rôle it was to influence other nations; England, like Emile, had an incurable virtue. But a wisewoman had prophesied of him when he was a child that he would meet his death in a large body of water, or else by suicide, and so Emile never went on ships.
The night before the morning of his release, he was given the freedom of the prison. He thought that it would interest him to sit in the receiving-room and read the records of some of the prisoners with whom he had made friends, and as a man of superior intelligence he was permitted to do this. He settled down to study the history of his cell-mate, Jacques, a quiet, somewhat educated working-man serving a year’s term for the murder of a woman whom he had loved and who had loved him, but who had wanted their relations to remain of a purely spiritual character. The jury had found him guilty of murder ‘under provocation’. Jacques had been a delightful cell-mate. He had thought about everything, and come to interesting conclusions. About poetry, for example, he said that it was a mistake for poets to write as if they were happy. This misled people into looking for happiness in poetry and being puzzled by its melancholy effect upon them. All the really great poets had made it plain, he said, that poetry was something depressing. From really great poetry people expected nothing.
Emile learned from his study of Jacques’ record that his mother had been an ‘entertainer’, of English birth, his father a waiter in Wagons-Lits. Jacques was described as being of refined speech and behaviour and the victim of a conflict between his class and his ideas. The murder had not been characterized by exceptional brutality. His only previous offence had been a quarrel with a gendarme who had tried to separate him from a woman of the streets who seemed to be annoying him. He had taken the position that he had a right to deal with the woman himself in a rational way. In this instance he had been sentenced to ten days’ imprisonment for interfering with a gendarme in the execution of his duty, but the sincerity of his motives was appreciatively noted. The record read almost like a certificate of good character. In three weeks Jacques would be free. Emile resolved not to neglect him. Jacques only needed someone to do his deeper thinking for him: he was inclined to over-simplification. He had a working-man’s natural impatience with the intellectual confusion of his intellectual superiors. Emile would reconcile him to intellectual confusion. Emile was quite calm now about the change in his relations with his old friends. He knew he was dead to them. He had stood sponsor to them in the universal course; and, with the tact that inspires all guardian spirits, he now planned to withdraw and leave them to enjoy their prosperity free from any cumbrous sense of indebtedness. The last stage of his own earthly existence he would pass as inconspicuously as possible, practising his incurable virtue of patronage in obscure paths where bodily disintegration would not make him seem ridiculous.
For Emile had begun to disintegrate. He did not walk, but rather felt himself pushed along. He looked down at his feet and turned them cruelly in absurd directions: they were only a pair of shoes. While Emile was in the midst of these almost jocular reflections, Suzanne, the famous flower-girl, was brought in. Everyone knew her from her picture. She was old, healthy and wicked, and always wore a man’s hat, and always carried a large sea-side umbrella under which she sat herself in all weathers, as in a stall, and always had violets to sell at any season of the year. Along with violets she also sold drugs; indeed Suzanne had turned ‘violets’ into a disreputable word. She had never been arrested for selling drugs, but she was regularly arrested several times a year for concealing in the flowers slips of paper bearing indecent remarks and sketches, or messages that might be interpreted as libels against the person who bought the flowers—to present them to perhaps a mother or a wife or a fiancée or some other object of either respect or affection. In this way, of course, Suzanne established a reputation as a cynical jokester and averted suspicion from the real nature of the folded slips of paper concealed in the bouquets which she sold to habitual purchasers; and as she kept changing her pitch frequently, it was impossible for any of her purchasers to be identified as habitual. Sometimes a gendarme would catch a purchaser in the act of extracting a folded slip from his bouquet and wink knowingly at him as he put it away slyly in his pocket for future examination. Sometimes a gendarme would buy a bouquet himself and present it to some friendly young woman, just for fun. And sometimes, as has been explained, a respectable gentleman would innocently suffer embarrassment and bring a charge against her. It was in consequence of such a charge that she had been sentenced to these three weeks’ imprisonment. Suzanne was thus on terms of familiarity with the police, which meant that they left her alone as much as possible, a necessary protection in her trade. While she was in prison they always treated her well. They gave her congenial, light jobs to do, such as cleaning the cells of prisoners who could afford luxuries and whose standing with the prison staff permitted them to enjoy them. Prison officers divided prisoners into two classes, those whom they liked and those whom they didn’t like, and discipline was administered accordingly. Human nature, and not crime, was the chief element of prison atmosphere.
Emile felt this strongly as he watched the behaviour of the prison officers with Suzanne and of Suzanne with them. He had heard about Suzanne from Jacques, whose mother had been one of her drug-children, as he expressed it. She had often kept his mother in ‘milk’, though aware that money was a somewhat romantic idea with her that might or might not materialize. She had also looked after Jacques when his mother had work or in those crazy periods when she ‘got lost’, taking him with her on her floral rounds. It was through her influence that he had got his apprenticeship in a lock-making establishment, and she had never held it against him that he had become a locksmith rather than a burglar. Suzanne was good. Emile, watching her, felt an almost professional bond with her. She had the same air of incurability as himself.
They were introduced to each other in the receiving-room and seemed to understand each other at once. Her blue-eyed wickedness was merely, he argued with himself, a facial caricature of her internal goodness; and she, for her part, forgave him his soft-hearted handsomeness because he had a disagreeable speaking voice, sharp with suppressed egotism. He accompanied her to her cell together with several prison officers, old friends of hers. On the way they paid a visit to Jacques. She and Jacques would be coming out at the same time. It was like leaving Jacques in her care. Suzanne gave Emile an address at which to deliver her basket and umbrella the following morning. She had been allowed to sprinkle her flowers and cover them with a wet cloth. How happy Emile was as he walked out of the prison, carrying Suzanne’s basket and umbrella, to have something new to do and somewhere new to go. Nor did he allow his mind to be weighed down by feelings of resentment towards his former protégés. He had already forgotten them. He was floating at last in a diamond-coloured sphere where nothing was of any significance except his own consciousness of his own incurable virtue. “I am immortal,” Emile sang to himself. Immortality consisted of ecstatic sensations of unashamed self-love. It was like dying. After death immortality was swallowed up in eternity. Then one swam into the self- destroying spheres of a higher and more virtuous being than oneself.
At the end of a year Emile was still dying, still in the grip of immortality. Everyone with whom he now associated had the same pride of knowing better than other people the way life yielded to higher and higher activities. They were mostly, except Jacques and Suzanne, criminals; but rather in the sense of understanding other people better than they understood themselves than of doing them harm. On the contrary, their attitude to other people was tenderly impersonal. They were the guardian spirits of their victims, educating them with the least possible violence in the larger realities. Indeed, what other people called crime was only their incurable virtue. They were good, as he was good, as Suzanne was good, as Jacques was good. They had ideas. They had liberated themselves from the crude laws of physical habit. Suzanne was not exactly a criminal; she was more like himself—a soul as well as an intellect. Jacques, on the other hand, was a simple creature who had raised himself above the common plane of life to a not much higher plane of dissatisfaction with life. Strange as it might seem, he was not a criminal because he was not good enough; he had only become good through an unnatural effort of intelligence. Criminals were naturally intelligent, and because they were naturally good. They were above other people by having grown tired of life before they grew dead; and this capacity for growing prematurely tired was a moral gift, not, as with Jacques, an intellectual accomplishment. Emile and Suzanne were even higher up in the sub- eternal scale than criminals. They were lovers of their own virtue; they prized themselves as well as their philosophy.
By such reasoning Emile’s new life was endeared to him. He gave up his apartments and made a cheerful home for himself, Suzanne and Jacques in another quarter. He had far more and far livelier friends than before. He was no longer called ‘poor Emile’. Suzanne in her turn gave up violet-selling. Jacques studied law and achieved fame and respectability as a criminals’ advocate. He won his cases by the deference with which he publicly treated the people he defended and by his ability to communicate to juries his conviction of the superiority of his clients over himself and other people in general. The coupling of crime and degeneracy was a vulgar fallacy that infuriated Jacques and Suzanne and Emile and all their circle. Emile even went so far as to assert that the spiritual mate of degeneracy was not crime but art. What shocked them most was to hear that someone was trying to go straight. For this meant moral suicide: the incurable virtue could not be plucked out without destroying the moral body. Emile, feeling towards his end an old man’s sentimental indulgence towards bygone associations, hanged himself on a peg in a railway lavatory rather than violate his latter-day ethics. He had, in fact, accidentally run into one of his old friends and they had had several drinks with each other, both taking such perverse pleasure in the encounter as is natural when two people who have once been friends meet as strangers, expansively indifferent to each other’s affairs. Emile had spoken with ungrudging openness of his new life, the other had discussed his work with nonchalant vigour, and they had planned to dine together in a few days, his old friend promising to hunt out in the meantime other available old friends, to join them.
Suzanne had been upset when he told her about it. She did not scold him, which was a tragic token that he should have known better. When someone in their circle did something that he should have had sense enough not to do, he was expected to redeem himself by suicide. Otherwise they were obliged to kill him themselves, which meant damnation. Emile recognized that he was passing into eternity. He went to the dinner knowing that life was all over for him. He had not clung to life, life had clung to him. Perhaps his old friends needed him again, and perhaps it would have been gratifying to be of some use to them. But the time had come to close his heart finally and let his mind float higher, deaf to mortal appeal, deaf even to the dear private music of his own immortality—float up into the silent heavens where the individual soul melted into the nameless master-soul with whom the incurable virtue, intelligent interest in others, became that rarefied activity: merely to watch.
At dinner with his old friends Emile spoke movingly of his criminal associates, with difficulty restraining tears. He could see that he bored them and that they thought him decrepit and silly; but it no longer mattered what people thought of him, or indeed what he said, or indeed what he did. He tottered out of the restaurant without saying good-bye, leaving them convinced of the complete disintegration of a once superior intelligence. There was nothing to say of him. He was not even ‘poor Emile’ to them now. He was nothing. To everyone he was nothing. He got into a taxi and drove towards the railway station. He felt full of adventure and wondered what train he should soon be riding in on his way towards nothingness and commingling with the intelligence superior to all superior intelligences. At the station he decided that a train was not necessary. It was still more exciting to let nothingness come and fetch him. He hanged himself with a fresh white neck-scarf (in the last stage of his life he had dressed even more fastidiously than before), taking off from a pipe that ran along the wall and enabled him very conveniently to reach the coat-peg as well as to miss the floor by a mere stretch of his toes. Nor did death in any way disappoint him. He was utterly dead and he knew that he was utterly dead and more sublimely incurable than he had even imagined it possible to be. In fact, the sublimity of this state would not have been endurable if he had not felt that in its loneliness he was united with the immense self of selves presiding quixotically over all wasted endeavour on behalf of others.