I went in at the sign of The Temulent Termagant (a frowsy slattern asplay in a shallow ditch along the wayside, with toes pointing upward, cheeks feverishly flushed, hair and bonnet and skirts wildly disordered, and a fist angrily raised at a rachitic child hobbling by on crutches). A public house I had known well in youth, it was a building beneath whose peeling lintel I had not passed for two decades. It took me only moments to find the Philosopher; I spied him through clouds of tobacco smoke and melancholy, seated alone at a table in a corner, both his glass and the bottle of whiskey beside it about half empty. I had not seen him recently and, as he lifted his head at my approach, I was astonished at his appearance: hair uncropped and disheveled, complexion waxen, the rheum about his pale blue eyes making it seem they peered at me through minute pellicles of hoarfrost. He said nothing when I reached the table, but invited me to sit by extending a hand with nicotine stains like indelible varnish.
“Hello, Phil,” I said after a moment. “I’d thought you might be here.”
He stared at me vaguely for a few seconds, coughed phlegmily, and said, “Well, you’ve found me. Have a drink.” His voice was weary, quiet, harsh.
“Maybe later,” I said. “What’s all this about you and Sophie?”
He emitted a single morose laugh, emptied his glass in one swallow, and filled it again. “Lady Sophia, if you please,” he snarled sardonically: “Don’t let’s forget her pedigrees. We mustn’t be guilty of insolent familiarity, sir—of lèse-majesté.” Then he sighed and lowered his head, and his voice became at once gentler and sadder: “It’s all over between us this time. There’s no going back.”
“Did she say that?”
“No need. I just know. It’s been coming for some time, honestly. The distance between us has been growing . . . getting colder . . . oh, I can’t say how long. It was ridiculous of me to think . . . to hope . . . I mean, we’re from different worlds. This was inevitable.”
I hesitated only a moment before asking, “What did you do, then? What did you say?”
He raised his head and stared directly, if hazily, into my eyes. “Well, how predictable. Of course, everyone assumes I’m the one to blame . . .”
“Well, I’ve known Sophie . . . known the lady for some time myself,” I said, “and you have to grant that . . .”
“Right, that she’s the pure, irreproachable one. That I’m the one who couldn’t bear the difference in our social derivations, because class consciousness rises up from below—doesn’t it?—like a vapor from the mire. But her, she’s as sweet and temperate as sunlight at dawn. Just shines down on everyone with unadulterated, unprejudiced, disinterested benevolence. Doesn’t care tuppence about class. I heard it before I met her. Sapientia verecunda et pudens, they said, casta et irreprehensa. Well, maybe she’s not quite as verecund or pudent as you all think. Maybe sometimes the truth is more, you know, Sapientia—ista meretrix!”
It was as if an electric shock had shot through me. “Look,” I said, struggling to restrain my anger, “I’m not judging. Your bitterness is making you ungallant. There’s nothing meretricious about her . . .”
“Says the man who’s sat at her table but never caressed her.” He drank, nearly emptying his glass again. “Sorry, that’s unfair. But you don’t understand. Remember, she drew me to her first. I wouldn’t have been that brave. She’s a girl who knows the power of her own beauty, believe me. And such beauty too—those ruby lips, those glistening sable locks, those shining eyes, that flawless skin, that curvaceous figure . . .” A quiver passed through him, and he finished his drink and poured out another. “It was so easy. She deftly cocked a coquettish oeillade in my direction—one appraising glance from those glorious eyes, one approving smile from those delectable lips—and I was vanquished. She knew what she was doing. She inveigled me. She’s a seductress, all the more irresistible because she seems so chaste . . .”
I was about to reply still more sternly, but he seemed to know what I would say and raised a hand to prevent me.
“No, no,” he said, his tone altering yet again, now becoming audibly contrite. “You’re right. It’s true. I’m to blame. She’s put up with my moods and vacillations and frustrations for years now, without complaint. I know I’m the one who always makes things go wrong.” Tears were now coming into his eyes. “I’m the one who’s ruined it all . . .”
Pity overcame me. “How long have things been going bad?” I asked gently.
He sat back in his chair, breathed deeply, and stared into space. “I can’t say. At first, it was sheer bliss. All soft spring days and softer summer nights. Laughter and love . . . like innocent children at play. And I was wholly hers. Every day I brought her tokens of my devotion, like the guileless boy I was: all the choicest flowers of Platonic contemplation, blossoms of Pythagorean mysticism, bouquets of visionary idealism, little punnets of berries—not ordinary, ephemeral, seasonal berries either, but the finest, rarest, eternal hyperouranian berries, gleaming, unique, and imperishable. And she delighted in my gifts, and lavished her love on me. I thought it couldn’t end. But then . . . I don’t know exactly when . . . I began trying to please her more and more, to impress her, I suppose, for fear she would tire of me. And the harder I tried, the more uncertain her responses became, the more forced her praise . . . the more tepid her thanks. Then we began to argue. It seemed the more I did, the less she appreciated my efforts.”
“What were you doing, exactly?”
“Trying to show her I loved her, I thought. My gifts became more exotic, so she wouldn’t lose interest. Specimens of exquisite, scholastically logic-chopped bric-a-brac, none of which appeared on her mantelpiece. ‘Too fussy,’ she said when I pressed her. I sent her flurries of Cartesian sonnets—I thought we could renew our romance with a new start—but she was disappointed. ‘They seem to be more about you than about me,’ she said. I couldn’t please her, and I kept making things worse. When I sang Kantian ballads in the garden below her window, she merely gazed down enigmatically, blew me a perfunctory kiss, and lowered the sash. The next day I received this by post . . .”—he drew out from an inner jacket pocket and unfolded a leaf of heliotrope stationery that looked as if it had been held often between clenched hands—“‘My Dear Boy,’ she begins. See how she condescends even when she’s trying to be tender? Dear Boy. Then she tells me that I’m being silly, that the repudiation of traditional metaphysics is just drastic emotionalism, and not sincere at all. She says that causality is already a logical category that’s prior to the empirical, and only my unreflective servility to mechanistic thought makes me think it can’t be extended analogically beyond the sensible. She says she’s beginning to doubt the earnestness of my professions of love. And . . . all sorts of things.” He folded the letter and thrust it away again. “So I changed. I sent her witty, ironic postmodern triolets. She accused me of vulgarity, of playing the Bohemian. She said these shifts of mood were disconcerting, frightening. Then . . .” He paused.
“What, for God’s sake? What did you do?”
“I gave up. In pique—no, in despair—I wrote her a long series of analytic propositions. I even . . . used some formal logical notation.”
I was appalled. I fought for words. “You didn’t,” I said at last. “That’s barbaric . . . depraved.”
He looked at me with utter resignation in his eyes. “I knew it was the end—she couldn’t forgive me—she’d believe I’d completely forsaken her. Oh, Lord, what now?” He shook his head and struck the table with his open hand. “Never to taste the nectar of her kisses again . . . never to hear the sweet music of her voice melt in silvery peels of doting laughter . . . Never.”
A terrible silence reigned between us for nearly a minute. Then I spoke. “You damned fool, you’ve never understood women. She doesn’t want to tell you what she wants from you—no woman does. She wants you to know. She wants to know you’ve been listening to her, that you’ve seen her. She doesn’t need all these spasms and convulsions of sentiment from you, all these apocalyptic renunciations and absurd dramatic gestures. That’s all about you, not her. You’re performing, acting out not what she means to you but how you’d like to imagine yourself in her eyes. There’s still time, if you’ll just sober up. Go back to the beginning, recapture the magic of that first thrill of love she woke in you. Stop trying to captivate her when she’s already yours. Be sublimely negligent of method. Speak to her again in the lilting, halting, innocent language of myth, of genteel dialogue, of piercing poetic metaphor—of Platonism. Every other philosophical style is folly, vainglory, or nihilistic spite. Show her that you still cherish her as she truly is. Show her herself in your heart’s glass of visions . . . Show her that you see her.”
He stared at me with wide eyes for several seconds. Then, quietly, he said, “Is that still really possible?”
“Yes,” I replied, “if you love her. She will never cease loving you.”
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things.