Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait of a Lady
Written on the scroll she holds, though not visible in the reproduction:
Sunt laquei veneris cave (Come cautiously; there are snares)
Giulia Gonzaga (1513-1566) was a Renaissance woman. Married and widowed as a teenager, she presided over an esteemed salon and enjoyed a reputation for beauty, intelligence, culture and attractiveness to powerful men, as well as to painters. (Sebastiano del Piombo is among the painters thought to have immortalized her in portrait.) In 1534, she fled an attack by the corsair Barbarossa. In some accounts, Barbarossa was said to be abducting Giulia for an Ottoman pasha’s harem. Giulia is also reported to have eluded the pirate’s clutches with the assistance of a man who, having seen her unclothed in the course of rescue, was later killed at her behest. Giulia spent most of the rest of her life in the Convent of San Francesco delle Monache in Naples, from which she continued her salon and carried on controversial correspondences. The Inquisition investigated her; it executed for heresy one of her pen pals, a man who had witnessed in writing her naked views.
Connections between the fictional characters in this story, and historical personages of the Renaissance, are not coincidental.
Taking male defects in stride was one of the three adult skills that Julia had mastered. The other two were fucking and grieving.
Of course, Julia’s assessment of mastery was wrong. No one is ever more than a servant to the maddening powers of sex, grief, and frustration with men.
Because this story is a short story, it can only encompass Julia’s last three lovers. The full catalogue would require text on the scale of an epic poem—one, moreover, that needs must remain eternally unfinished because even Julia cannot remember them all. Among their frustrating qualities is evanescence.
Of the last three, only the most recent two truly concern us. The earliest in the chronology is significant for a single reason: he left. Julia does not appreciate being left. If leaving is required, she will do it. Or the man can die. Those options cover the spectrum of permissible behaviour according to Julia’s defense mechanisms.
The moderating, and therefore complicating, factor was that Natan was insane. The diagnosis was not colloquial, but rather of the formal variety that arrives after the deficiency manifests in the conviction that one is a pirate. The parrot riding—chained—to the shoulder is discovered to have been kidnapped from the rare bird conservation refuge. Arrest. The invariable plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Release on bail pending trial elongates into hospitalization necessitated by attempted self-amputation of the leg from the knee down. No one—least of all, Julia—foresaw that Natan had the executive functioning, to say nothing of the mobility, sufficient to put all his possessions in suitcases and decamp.
Julia had loved him completely and consumingly, and not merely because her vanity had flowered with its roots secured in the nurturing soil of his beauty. The sex had been transporting enough that she was unable to think rationally: she was wholly and reflexively prepared to make any sacrifice for his happiness, and her own. Insanity was manageable, criminal charges could be plea-bargained; to prolong his erectile functionality, and her access to it, any challenge could be surmounted. Except departure.
The disappearance of Natan’s breath and form, his scent and touch, his company and voice: this was the real le petit mort, and it was a loss of her own life. Julia grieved the loss of who she was in relation to him. His love had fed her selfish and altruistic aspects equally, and his departure precipitated an unmanageable escalation in the tension between these antipodes. In her misery and confusion, she did not resist.
Quotidian facts of biography bore Julia. This preference may distinguish her as unique among the multitude, or it may be a reason why she misses signals that warn others away from the men who disappoint her. These same men apparently perceive something vulnerable in the facts of her being 37 years old, multi-national, multi-lingual, educated (she has a Ph.D. in Theology from Oxford University), never married, childless, and of independent means that allow her the freedom to work in a shamefully underpaid position as religious counsel at a prison, where she devotes her afternoons to reading Danté’s Inferno to assassins who seem to draw all the thrill, and none of the moral instruction, from the river of blood in the Seventh Circle of Hell, into which they are fated to be steeped.
Julia is not a heroine in a Henry James novel, but even the Master could make only a marginally better mess of her life than she’s doing herself.
Abrupt rupture and deprivation are persuasive missionaries. Surrendered after exposure to the insane, Julia sought refuge in that arbiter of sanctioned delusion, religion; and here—naturally—found her next lover.
Before the lover, falling in love. Unusually, Julia did not fall in love with the lover: she fell in love with Buddhism. Or, possibly, she fell in love with the person Buddhism promised her she would become: compassionate, free from entanglements and self-inflicted suffering, independent, liberated from past identities and their accompanying habits of mind and action, generous, capable of experiencing extraordinary love untainted by neediness and vanity. Unrecognizable as a human being; god-like. Of course, falling in love with the god-like is very human.
So is disillusion.
In fact, blasphemy quickened the attraction. Weekly, Petr brought caviar to the mediation center’s vegetarian pot-luck Sunday lunches; weekly, his contribution was rejected as non-compliant. The third time Petr invited Julia to an off-site location where they could share his caviar, she accepted.
For all its drawbacks, Petr’s anti-vegetarianism had the virtue of consistency with the rest of his (many) opinions in rebellious dialogue, if not opposition to, conventional Buddhist teachings: holding opinions lightly, making judgments reservedly, and allowing the world to be “as it is,” are positions inseparable from abdication of responsibility. Moderation breeds pernicious apathy. Insight arises from the experience of being overwhelmed. Wisdom emerges after spurring oneself to the edge, ripping away the painted veil, gazing into the forbidden abyss, and daring oneself to take the next step. Violence, as in birth, is sometimes necessary and unavoidable; some transformations require the midwife of shock tactics. Communications intrinsically contain untruth; language is too imprecise to capture truth consistently, if ever. Sex inevitably involves entanglement—otherwise it’s not fun. Purity is to love as oil to water; no lover knows a love refined of desire, lust, jealousy, competition, pride and grasping after power.
Pronounced often and contemptuously, Petr’s views were true. They were also empty. Some time in the past, Petr had wound his way through the labyrinth of complex thought to arrive at the Minotaur of his opinions. Since that time, Petr had ceased to think.
Petr was the captain of a private equity firm—another pirate. He was conspicuous about his success: visitors to his office would often find his desk chair empty, and Petr across the room in lotus position on his custom meditation cushion. Somehow he always rose from the cushion more of an asshole than when he’d sat down.
Julia was not attracted to the asshole, but she was attracted to the blasphemy, which like all blasphemy, sounded like more of a party than doctrine. In her own estimation, she was a critical thinker, which amounted to a doubter; and like many of that category, she mistook disapproval of blasphemy for narrow-minded rejection, by the powerful, of challenges to their hold on power. She failed to perceive that the danger of blasphemy was not its substance—its interpretative or reformist claims—but its emptiness: for all the glossiness that blasphemy contributed to the adherent’s exterior, the interior was hollow. At the heart of blasphemy is no god.
Like his blasphemy, Petr’s success was another patina over a void; but the patina’s shine captured Julia’s attention. When the battle between her vanity and her desperation to sacrifice for Natan had concluded, what had been laid to waste was Julia’s conception of herself as successful. Many qualities had survived—or, incredibly, taken root because of—the carnage: Julia now assessed herself as humble, patient, worthy, slow to judge and quick to smile. But success was an anathema in this environment, and Julia persisted in craving success.
With success, Julia would be liberated from her grieving; what had been snatched from her with Natan’s departure would be returned.
Attachment to Petr would qualify her, again, as a success, a status that was not demeaned (indeed, was burnished) by compromise. Accepting that successful blasphemers were also assholes was a compromise.
She was deluded.
However, well-defended the fortress of the delusional, delusion and awakening pair off eventually. What Julia had told herself about Petr lost its sheen of credibility when she concluded that, notwithstanding his age, money, profession, social position, and self-professed skill set, he did not know how to fuck.
Petr progressed from being obliquely to openly intimidated by her own orgasms. He affected first a superior disdain of, and then a robust hostility to, “mere physical release”—especially multiple physical release. Julia eventually deduced that his attitude was less “tantric” than “anorgasmic.”
An inability to empathize sufficiently to satisfy a woman’s sexual desires is common enough in men who come; for men who don’t come, the crevasse is impenetrable. To say that sexual inadequacy underlies all male obnoxiousness is true, though the inverse is not: some men who are sexually inadequate are nonetheless tolerable.
Petr was not one of them.
Living in the past is not one of Julia’s flaws, though forgetting the past might be. Julia is especially forgetful of her own past errors; or perhaps they never entered her conscious awareness. The result in both events is the same: she repeats herself.
Condemning this quality is the variety of foolishness in which the particularly forgetful indulge. And Julia charmingly reprises her hopefulness, as well as her blinkeredness.
In the hierarchy of healing, religion is balm for the affliction of vanity. Vanity corrupts by its counsel to value for their stability qualities and conditions that are constantly changing. The energy necessary to cajole belief in control over the uncontrollable eventually saps the sufferer of strength to stand. Upon falling to one’s knees, prayer is the obvious next step.
But if recourse to the spiritual restores vitality to the depleted, it does so through suspension of certain human capacities that is not long sustainable. If the illusion of vanity is that one is privileged to ongoing dominion over whatever one imbues with value, the illusion of religion is that living safely is possible.
Religiously sanctioned grounds for roaming are too constrained for the nomadic creature—all the more so if the wanderlust afflicts the mind, as well as the body. Continued compliance with religious edict demands contortions ever more extreme, until integrity (the individual’s, as well as the religion’s) is endangered. The medicine that rescues integrity from the rigidity of religion is art.
Or, in Julia’s case, an artist.
Having compromised values a shade too essential with Petr, Julia sought restoration to glory through embrace of extremes. And an extremist.
Like all encasements of prodigiously imaginative minds, Sebastiano understood that “safety” and “living fully” share no sphere of overlap. Of course, Sebastiano also mined his field of existence with risk; and risk is an unstable combustible that releases a most poisonous gas: anxiety. The drive to breathe air untainted by anxiety involves the embrace of more risk, a cycle that proves a brutal teacher of many lessons, among them the skill of transforming danger into pleasure.
Safety, by contrast, fails to convert to any quality more attractive than relief, which shares with pleasure all of the drawbacks of transience, yet lacks the merit of imparting a high. Without the reward of the high, what purpose the life fully lived?
Sebastiano was willing to allow that safety was among the possible attributes of death; but he was unwilling to believe that anything as terrifying, in its anticipation, as death could never be as boring, in its actualization, as safety.
In this, Sebastiano was wrong. But elaboration of his error belongs to another story.
Like Danté’s acquaintance with Beatrice, Sebastiano had seen Julia once when she was a child under circumstances that related in some way to their families being familiar. The second alignment of their glances occurred years later, when Sebastiano was stomping in a parade to protest insufficient government funding for the Arts, beneath a balcony on which Julia was reading a pornographic novel of literary distinction, the result of which was a flush of high color on her cheeks.
The epistolary courtship that followed contained many indications of Sebastiano’s lack of suitability, but art is inappropriate, and artists more so, and the fact that no woman has ever enjoyed being married to a painter seems to dissuade none from attempting the impossible.
Sebastiano’s articulated interest in being dismembered by bathing maenads, like a satyr caught spying, struck Julia only as a passing—if odd—fancy. His prolific use of pseudonyms did not trigger in Julia any concerns about evasiveness. His admission of penury was only to be expected. His penchant for citing Marxist-French-sadist philosophers reminded Julia merely of how dry she had found such authors in university. The apparent lull in his career progress could be rationalized as a “fertile” fallow time, enriching the hummus for the next crop of paintings. His past work in “public relations” for some Cause’s Republican Army prompted in Julia no alarm, but the query of whether she had graduated from pirates to terrorists.
No less enthusiastically than when she had grasped at successful spirituality with Petr, Julia clung to extreme art with Sebastiano. Julia allowed her letters to flow freely with accounts of her sexual fantasies, intermingled with liberal quotations from Italian poetry. She went to exhibitions and sent Sebastiano postcards of the most affecting pieces that she had viewed. She planned their rendez-vous, booked the hotel, ordered wine, bought a dress. She was romantic. She was hopeful.
She was a slow learner.
Thus Julia suffered humiliation when she greeted him, tastefully nude, at the door of her hotel room; and, in response to her attempt to throw herself into his embrace, Sebastiano bid her to be still, to be frozen—to be frigid, if you will—a poseur, a model. His arms already bore his love—his canvas, brushes, paints—and he carried them across the threshold. Even before Julia had stopped moving, he had begun to paint. While Julia had been garlanding Venus, Sebastiano had lit his incense offering at the altar of Apollo and prayed for a muse; and in Sebastiano’s mythology, such a guide to Paradise is a virgin (to his cock, in any event).
Sebastiano, blessed thing, understood his conduct as an expression of courtly love, destined always to remain at a distance, concerned with the symbolic and spiritual rewards of the connection, but declining concrete and earthly manifestations of the relation.
Julia understood his conduct as deceit.
While deceiving a woman is a kind of folly so common as to be unremarkable, ill treatment of a muse is an error about which two thousand years of literature give warning. To his detriment, Sebastiano had not read any of it.
In some accounts, Julia is said to have had Sebastiano executed.
Maya Alexandri's novel, The Celebration Husband, was published in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Fabula Argentea, The Light Ekphrastic, and Thrice Fiction. In addition, she is an organizer of the Amplified Cactus performance art series in Baltimore, Maryland. She has lived in China, India, and Kenya, and has worked as a lawyer, UN consultant, blues-rock singer, and EMT. Current writing projects include a novel and a cycle of linked short stories. For more information, see www.mayaalexandri.com.