The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Part of his fury was shame, no doubt, at being seen with a girl who would behave in such a pawky way. But at this point he was, of course, right. Only he had been wrong before to nag me into this, and I was altogether wrong to have let him persuade me. Or so I felt then. “You have got to face this!” By then he was right; and I did look and I did face it, though not for years and years.
During those years I saw perhaps a hundred bullfights, all in Mexico City, with the finest bulls from Spain and the greatest bullfighters—but not with Shelley—never again with Shelley, for we were not comfortable together after that day. Our odd, mismatched sort of friendship declined and neither made any effort to revive it. There was bloodguilt between us, we shared an evil secret, a hateful revelation. He hated what he had revealed in me to himself, and I hated what he had revealed to me about myself, and each of us for entirely opposite reasons; but there was nothing more to say or do, and we stopped seeing each other.
I took to the bullfights with my Mexican and Indian friends. I sat with them in the cafés where the bullfighters appeared; more than once went at two o’clock in the morning with a crowd to see the bulls brought into the city; I visited the corral back of the ring where they could be seen before the corrida. Always, of course, I was in the company of impassioned adorers of the sport, with their special vocabulary and mannerisms and contempt for all others who did not belong to their charmed and chosen cult. Quite literally there were those among them I never heard speak of anything else; and I heard then all that can be said—the topic is limited, after all, like any other—in love and praise of bullfighting. But it can be tiresome, too. And I did not really live in that world, so narrow and so trivial, so cruel and so unconscious; I was a mere visitor. There was something deeply, irreparably wrong with my being there at all, something against the grain of my life; except for this (and here was the falseness I had finally to uncover): I loved the spectacle of the bullfights, I was drunk on it, I was in a strange, wild dream from which I did not want to be awakened. I was now drawn irresistibly to the bullring as before I had been drawn to the race tracks and the polo fields at home. But this had death in it, and it was the death in it that I loved. . . . And I was bitterly ashamed of this evil in me, and believed it to be in me only—no one had fallen so far into cruelty as this! These bullfight buffs I truly believed did not know what they were doing—but I did, and I knew better because I had once known better; so that spiritual pride got in and did its deadly work, too. How could I face the cold fact that at heart I was just a killer, like any other, that some deep corner of my soul consented not just willingly but with rapture? I still clung obstinately to my flattering view of myself as a unique case, as a humane, blood-avoiding civilized being, somehow a fallen angel, perhaps? Just the same, what was I doing there? And why was I beginning secretly to abhor Shelley as if he had done me a great injury, when in fact he had done me the terrible and dangerous favor of helping me to find myself out?
In the meantime I was reading St. Augustine; and if Shelley had helped me find myself out, St. Augustine helped me find myself again. I read for the first time then his story of a friend of his, a young man from the provinces who came to Rome and was taken up by the gang of clever, wellborn young hoodlums Augustine then ran with; and this young man, also wellborn but severely brought up, refused to go with the crowd to the gladiatorial combat; he was opposed to them on the simple grounds that they were cruel and criminal. His friends naturally ridiculed such dowdy sentiments; they nagged him slyly, bedeviled him openly, and, of course, finally some part of him consented—but only to a degree. He would go with them, he said, but he would not watch the games. And he did not; until the time for the first slaughter, when the howling of the crowd brought him to his feet, staring: and afterward he was more bloodthirsty than any.
Why, of course: oh, it might be a commonplace of human nature, it might be it could happen to anyone! I longed to be free of my uniqueness, to be a fellow-sinner at least with someone: I could not bear my guilt alone—and here was this student, this boy at Rome in the fourth century, somebody I felt I knew well on sight, who had been weak enough to be led into adventure but strong enough to turn it into experience. For no matter how we both attempted to deceive ourselves, our acts had all the earmarks of adventure: violence of motive, events taking place at top speed, at sustained intensity, under powerful stimulus and a willful seeking for pure sensation; willful, I say, because I was not kidnapped and forced, after all, nor was that young friend of St. Augustine’s. We both proceeded under the power of our own weakness. When the time came to kill the splendid black and white bull, I who had pitied him when he first came into the ring stood straining on tiptoe to see everything, yet almost blinded with excitement, and crying out when the crowd roared, and kissing Shelley on the cheekbone when he shook my elbow and shouted in the voice of one justified: “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I?”
Act of Faith: 4 July 1942
SINCE this war began I have felt sometimes that all our good words had been rather frayed out with constant repetition, as if they were talismans that needed only to be spoken against the evil and the evil would vanish; or they have been debased by the enemy, part of whose business is to disguise fascism in the language of democracy. And I have noticed that the people who are doing the work and the fighting and the dying, and those who are doing the talking, are not at all the same people.*
By natural sympathy I belong with those who are not talking much at present, except in the simplest and straightest of terms, like the young Norwegian boy who escaped from Norway and joined the Canadian forces. When asked how he felt about Norway’s fate, he could say only, “It is hard to explain how a man feels who has lost his country.” I think he meant it was impossible; but he had a choice, to accept defeat or fight, and he made the choice, and that was his way of talking. There was the American boy going into the navy, who answered the same foolish question: “It’s too serious a thing to be emotional about.” And the young American wife who was one of the last civilians to escape, by very dangerous and exhausting ways, from a bombarded island where her husband was on active duty. She was expecting her first baby. “Oh yes, I had the baby,” she said, matter-of-factly, “a fine healthy boy.” And another girl, twenty-one years old, has a six-month-old girl baby and a husband who will be off to the army any day now. She wrote: “I’m glad I have that job. Her Daddy won’t have to worry about us.”
While the talkers have been lecturing us, saying the American people have been spoiled by too much prosperity and made slack of fiber by too much peace and freedom, and gloating rather over the painful times we are about to endure for our own good, I keep my mind firmly on these four young ones, not because they are exceptional but precisely because they are not. They come literally in regiments these days, though not all of them are in uniform, nor should be. They are the typical millions of young people in this country, and they have not been particularly softened by prosperity; they were brought up on the depression. They have not been carefully sheltered: most of them have worked for a living when they could find work, and an astonishing number of them have helped support their families. They do their jobs and pay their taxes and buy War Savings Stamps and contribute to the Red Cross and China Relief and Bundles for Britain and all the rest. They do the work in factories and offices and on farms. The girls knit and nurse and cook and are learning to replace the boys in skilled work in war production. The boys by the thousand are getting off to camp, carrying their little two-by-four suitcases or bundles. I think of this war in terms of these people, who are my kind of people; the war they are fighting is my war, and yes, it is hard to find exactly the right word to say to them. I wait to hear what they will have to say to the world when this war is won and over and they must begin their lives again in the country they have helped to save for democracy.
I wait for that with the most immense and deep longing and hope and belief in them.
In the meantime le
Truth is, the value of peace to us was that it gave us time, and the right to fight for our liberties as a people, against our internal enemies, using those weapons provided for us within our own system of government; and the first result of war with an external enemy is that this right is suspended, and there is the danger that, even if the foreign war is won, the gains at home may be lost, and must be fought for all over again.
It has been the habit and the principle of this people to think in terms of peace, and perhaps to live in rather a too-optimistic faith that peace could be maintained when all the plainest signs pointed in the opposite direction; but they have fought their wars very well, and they will fight this one well, too. And it is no time to be losing our heads and saying, or thinking, that in the disciplines and the restrictions and the heavy taxes and the restraint on action necessary to concerted effort, we have already lost the freedoms we are supposed to be fighting for. If we lose the war, there will be nothing left to talk about; the blessed and sometimes abused American freedom of speech will have vanished with the rest. But we are not going to lose this war, and the people of this country are going to have the enormous privilege of another chance to make of their Republic what those men who won and founded it for us meant for it to be. We aren’t going anywhere, that is one great thing. Every single soul of us is involved personally in this war; this is the last stand, and this is our territory. Here is the place and now is the time to put a stop, once and for all, to the stampede of the human race like terrorized cattle over one world frontier after another. We stay here.
And during this period of suspension of the humanities, in the midst of the outrage and the world horror staggering to the imagination, we might find it profitable to examine the true nature of our threatened liberties, and their political, legal, and social origins and meanings, and decide exactly what their value is, and where we should be without them. They were not accidental by any means; they are implicit in our theory of government, which was in turn based on humanistic concepts of the importance of the individual man and his rights in society. They are not mere ornaments on the façade, but are laid in the foundation stone of the structure, and they will last so long as the structure itself but no longer. They are not inalienable: the house was built with great labor and it is made with human hands; human hands can tear it down again, and will, if it is not well loved and defended. The first rule for any effective defense is: Know your enemies. Blind, fanatical patriotism which shouts and weeps is no good for this war. This is another kind of war altogether. I trust the quiet coldness of the experienced fighters, I like their knowing that words are wasted in this business.
The Future Is Now
NOT so long ago I was reading in a magazine with an enormous circulation some instructions as to how to behave if and when we see that flash brighter than the sun which means that the atom bomb has arrived. I read of course with the intense interest of one who has everything to learn on this subject; but at the end, the advice dwindled to this: the only real safety seems to lie in simply being somewhere else at the time, the farther away the better; the next best, failing access to deep shelters, bombproof cellars and all, is to get under a stout table —that is, just what you might do if someone were throwing bricks through your window and you were too nervous to throw them back.
This comic anticlimax to what I had been taking as a serious educational piece surprised me into real laughter, hearty and carefree. It is such a relief to be told the truth, or even just the facts, so pleasant not to be coddled with unreasonable hopes. That very evening I was drawn away from my work table to my fifth-story window by one of those shrill terror-screaming sirens which our excitement-loving city government used then to affect for so many occasions: A fire? Police chasing a gangster? Somebody being got to the hospital in a hurry? Some distinguished public guest being transferred from one point to another? Strange aircraft coming over, maybe? Under the lights of the corner crossing of the great avenue, a huge closed vehicle whizzed past, screaming. I never knew what it was, had not in fact expected to know; no one I could possibly ask would know. Now that we have bells clamoring away instead for such events, we all have one doubt less, if perhaps one expectancy more. The single siren’s voice means to tell us only one thing.
But at that doubtful moment, framed in a lighted window level with mine in the apartment house across the street, I saw a young man in a white T-shirt and white shorts at work polishing a long, beautiful dark table top. It was obviously his own table in his own flat, and he was enjoying his occupation. He was bent over in perfect concentration, rubbing, sandpapering, running the flat of his palm over the surface, standing back now and then to get the sheen of light on the fine wood. I am sure he had not even raised his head at the noise of the siren, much less had he come to the window. I stood there admiring his workmanlike devotion to a good job worth doing, and there flashed through me one of those pure fallacies of feeling which suddenly overleap reason: surely all that effort and energy so irreproachably employed were not going to be wasted on a table that was to be used merely for crawling under at some unspecified date. Then why take all those pains to make it beautiful? Any sort of old board would do.
I was so shocked at this treachery of the lurking Foul Fiend (despair is a foul fiend, and this was despair) I stood a moment longer, looking out and around, trying to collect my feelings, trying to think a little. Two windows away and a floor down in the house across the street, a young woman was lolling in a deep chair, reading and eating fruit from a little basket. On the sidewalk, a boy and a girl dressed alike in checkerboard cotton shirts and skin-tight blue denims, a costume which displayed acutely the structural differences of their shapes, strolled along with their arms around each other. I believe this custom of lovers walking enwreathed in public was imported by our soldiers of the First World War from France, from Paris indeed. “You didn’t see that sort of thing here before,” certain members of the older generation were heard to remark quite often, in a tone of voice. Well, one sees quite a lot of it now, and it is a very pretty, reassuring sight. Other citizens of all sizes and kinds and ages were crossing back and forth; lights flashed red and green, punctually. Motors zoomed by, and over the great city—but where am I going? I never read other peoples’ descriptions of great cities, more particularly if it is a great city I know. It doesn’t belong here anyway, except that I had again that quieting sense of the continuity of human experience on this earth, its perpetual aspirations, set-backs, failures and re-beginnings in eternal hope; and that, with some appreciable differences of dress,
Why did this console me? I cannot say; my mind is of the sort that can often be soothed with large generalities of that nature. The silence of the spaces between the stars does not affright me, as it did Pascal, because I am unable to imagine it except poetically; and my awe is not for the silence and space of the endless universe but for the inspired imagination of man, who can think and feel so, and turn a phrase like that to communicate it to us. Then too, I like the kind of honesty and directness of the young soldier who lately answered someone who asked him if he knew what he was fighting for. “I sure do,” he said, “I am fighting to live.” And as for the future, I was once reading the first writings of a young girl, an apprentice author, who was quite impatient to get on with the business and find her way into print. There is very little one can say of use in such matters, but I advised her against haste—she could so easily regret it. “Give yourself time,” I said, “the future will take care of itself.” This opinionated young person looked down her little nose at me and said, “The future is now.” She may have heard the phrase somewhere and liked it, or she may just have naturally belonged to that school of metaphysics; I am sure she was too young to have investigated the thought deeply. But maybe she was right and the future does arrive every day and it is all we have, from one second to the next.