Conjunctions:28 Secular Psalms

From The Negro-Lover

To show the fly the way out of the bottle was the life’s hope of Ludwig Wittgenstein but the truth is that human beings don’t want a way out of the bottle; we are captivated, enthralled by the interior of the bottle; the bottle is the perimeter of our experience and our aspiration; the bottle is our skin, our soul; we could not survive outside the bottle; or tell ourselves, in the glassy-echoing confinement of the bottle, that this is so.



As the ancient Jewish people, persecuted by their enemies, interpreted history and the random events of nature moralistically, believing that catastrophes of even weather and geology were consequences of man’s evil, so in times of emotional distress we are inclined to ascribe to whatever happens a moral significance. We cease to believe in chance, and cling to a belief in design; we can’t accept that we don’t in some way deserve what happens to us; we prefer a wrathful, capricious god to no god at all. Like children we try to influence what can’t be influenced; we beg to be treated mercifully. When I was in love with Vernor Matheius in the winter, spring and summer of that year I became twenty years old, and when, for a while, it seemed to me that Vernor Matheius to some inscrutable degree was in love with me, or behaved as if this might be so, I carried myself like easily shattered glass; I seemed to understand that my behavior was madness; yet I could not alter my behavior; I did not want to alter my behavior; for that would have been to abandon the madness, the hope of being loved by him; that would have been to abandon the glassy-echoing confinement of the bottle; that would have been to die. I was convinced that my connection with Vernor Matheius was a force outside my volition as it was outside his; it would consume us both, like wildfire. Therefore every glance, every facial expression, every word, every gesture of mine had to be controlled. There was a way of behaving that was good, decent, virtuous and blameless; I’d known as a child that “good” behavior would save me from harm, yet I had not cared; for the worst had already happened, my mother had died; as a child I could not perceive otherwise than My mother’s death happened to me; it was difficult to comprehend that my mother’s death had happened to her. Perhaps I have never been able to comprehend that simple melancholy fact. So now I understood: if I were good, decent, virtuous and blameless I would be rewarded with Vernor Matheius’s love; if not, not. There was no God monitoring such behavior; I did not believe in God; I was contemptuous of God; I despised God; the Lutheran God presented to me, drilled with lackluster diligence into me as a child, seemed silly, contemptible; a fantasy figure of my elders, whom in any case I did not respect. (To hear my German grandmother mumbling her prayers with a pursed, prissy, pained expression on her time-raddled face, her fattish fingers twined in reverence, was to be tempted, oh so dangerously tempted, to break into laughter.) Yet I’d become increasingly superstitious; as in the childhood of our race spirits and demons were believed to populate the invisible world, obsessively concerned with human affairs, so it seemed to me, in love with Vernor Matheius, that invisible forces were on my side, or against me; I had to placate them at all times; I could not ignore them; I could not risk defying them; I had to guard against impulsive wishful thoughts; constantly I was warned If you think a thing, that thing will not happen; thinking for instance He will see me tonight, we will make love in his bed fatally assured that this would not, could not happen. My thoughts were powerless to control my fate yet my thoughts were omniscient controlling my fate. To counter wish-thoughts all my thoughts had to be monitored. To counter wish-thoughts all my behavior had to be monitored. There was a way of walking, standing, breathing, chewing my food; even a way of sleeping; a way of relating to other people; I was in a constant state of anxiety that I would violate it; I was required, for instance, to smile at everyone with whom I came into contact, whether friends, classmates, strangers; I was required to smile at all persons in authority; I was required to be warm, gracious, courteous even when the effort was exhausting; even when my heart was breaking; even when I wanted to die, to extinguish myself utterly, to be free of my love for Vernor Matheius, to be free of love.

       Is something wrong? is something wrong with your face? one of them was asking, a girl in the residence hall who’d imagined herself a friend of mine. I was hurt, I was angry; I stared at her my eyes shining with tears like shards of glass, what do you mean? what is wrong with my face? and she said, embarrassed, meaning to be kind, your face seems frozen sometimes, you smile with just one side of your face.



“Love for any one thing is barbaric for it is exercised at the expense of everything else. This includes love of God.”

When he was bored and depressed, when his thoughts (he said) backed up like a sewer he could taste then he wanted me; wanted Anellia whose true name he’d never cared to learn. C’mon girl sing for me!—that wide damp glistening smile, the gap between his two upper front teeth glistening too, and I would protest laughing I couldn’t sing and Vernor would say with mock sobriety like the schoolteacher he’d vowed he would never become I’m telling you, girl, sing! You can save your life if you sing for me. So barefoot there on the splintery floorboards of Vernor Matheius’s room (blinds drawn, windows open a few inches to dispel the airlessness) I sang what flew haphazardly into my head, shut my eyelids singing the imperfectly recalled lyrics of a long-ago popular love song of yearning, shameless female yearning heard on the radio in another lifetime, my mother’s lifetime perhaps; and Vernor would clap his hands impatiently Faster, girl! Speed up the beat! and out of my astonished mouth would burst snatches of songs heard during those months of torment I’d lived in the Kappa Gamma Pi house, songs I’d detested at the time and had pressed my hands over my ears to keep from hearing, maddening records of “The Kingston Trio” my Kappa sisters played again, again and again and another the calypso-beat Hey c’mon kitch let’s go to bed, I gotta small comb to scratch your head and Vernor burst into loud laughter hearing this, such smut; such brainless idiotic smut; clapping his hands and regarding me, for a moment, before he rose to take hold of me, with almost tenderness.

       Desire rising in a man’s eyes like a swiftly lit flame.

       When he was bored and depressed. When he was in one of his shitty moods.

       Two kinds of moods: the inspired and the shitty. Swinging back and forth between them he said like a monkey on a bar.

       Certainly he disapproved of moods. There was no category of mood, no account of mood in Spinoza, Descartes, Kant; mood as a category in serious philosophical inquiry did not exist. A philosopher succumbing to a mood no longer existed as a philosopher but as something other, lesser. In such moods he despised himself and in a sense did not know himself.

       When he was bored and depressed his thoughts backed up like sewage and he didn’t want to see newspaper headlines pushing away scattered pages of the local paper left behind on a table in the coffee house or in a pub where we’d arranged to meet, didn’t want to know of the civil rights marches that spring in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, the police attack dogs, the Ku Klux Klan bombings, arrests of civil rights volunteers; he wished the volunteers well, he hoped they would succeed he said but he hadn’t time to spare for such activism, even the contemplation of such activism. Time is an hourglass running in only one direction he said. I did not say I think they must be very brave, some of them very reckless living in time, in history for perhaps these thoughts had not crystallized in my mind, perhaps the words were not there.

       Love for any one thing is barbaric (so Vernor Matheius quoted Nietzsche of whom generally he did not approve) and yet more contemptible is lust, yet more contemptible than lust the habit of lust, the addiction. The body’s compulsion, grovelling in another’s flesh. As if redemption, meaning, might be found in another’s flesh. That warm eager leap of seed (which, at least, most of the time Vernor could thwart, with trembling fingers tugging a condom on his erect, bobbing penis). Like drinking (yes damn it Vernor admitted he was drinking more than he’d ever done), like smoking (yes he was smoking more, too, chain-smoking cursing such a foul filthy expensive habit an ashtray on his desk overflowing with ashes, butts spilling onto the floor). When he was bored and depressed. When his thoughts backed up like sewage. When he was in one of his moods. Angry, impatient with himself. Shouldn’t blame Anellia, poor sweet Anellia who loved him when it was himself to be blamed; when his work wasn’t going well; when he was praised nonetheless (by his dissertation advisor who was perhaps intimidated by Vernor Matheius though twenty years his senior) though his work wasn’t going well; when he lost faith in his work; when he lost faith in philosophy; gripped by the philosophical puzzlement of which Wittgenstein spoke; tragic lacerating Wittgenstein for whom the posing of unanswerable questions was a strategy for the postponement of suicide; when he lost faith not in philosophy nor even in the vision of his work but in his ability day by day, hour by hour to execute his work; when he lost faith in the very concept faith; when he despised me for adoring him; when he despised himself for being adored; how like an addiction was a man’s sexual desire; a man’s sexual need; that weakness he’d believed he had conquered years ago; yet now it had returned as if in mockery of him; in mockery of the Vernor Matheius he’d become; how like a sickness that need for Anellia whose true name he did not care to know, the slender pale-gleaming body a white woman’s body in to which he could fall, fall, fall. Stripping me bare studying me with scholarly objectivity adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses that glinted like frost. Brushing away my crossed arms and hands where I tried to hide myself, embarrassed of his scrutiny. Don’t pretend, Anellia. It’s too late for that.

Come here he would say quietly.

       Lie down he would say. Or Take off your clothes.

Sometimes whispering words I could not hear, words of angry endearment or obscenities or curses not for me to hear; his voice was hoarse, cracked; it was not Vernor Matheius’s voice, it was not the voice I’d originally loved; he seemed no longer to trust his voice; often he would say nothing at all as if desire choked his throat, rendered him mute; nor did he trust himself caressing me; running a thumb hard against the pale blue vein at my hairline, framing my face in his hands both his thumbs dangerously close to my eyes You have beautiful eyes, Anellia as if he’d never seen them, or me, before how can you trust me, don’t you know I could gouge out your eye in an instant but of course I trusted him, I never flinched even when he squeezed my breasts as if hoping to squeeze liquid from them, squeezed my thighs, my buttocks smooth-cupped in his hands whispering what he would not say aloud Your cunt your skin the color and texture of your skin are repulsive to me, don’t you know? can’t you guess? how can you do these things with me, how can you abase yourself so? Never would he have said I love you; though often in my dreams he said I love you; he would cover my mouth with his to suffocate my words, my cries, my breath; if I felt sexual pleasure rising in me in rhythm with his own, if mesmerizing pleasure burst between my legs he did not want me to scream; he did not want his neighbors to hear me scream; if he closed his fingers around my neck he did not want to hear me scream; if he spat into my mouth that seemed to him in orgasm ugly and gaping as a fish’s mouth he did not want to hear me scream; he would fill my mouth with his tongue; he would fill my mouth with his cock; my dry anguished mouth filled with his immense tongue; my dry anguished mouth filled with his immense cock; he would spill himself into me, that I might choke and drown; he would whimper almost saying I love you; as if these words were snatched from him as his seed was snatched from him he would whimper almost saying I love you. In his strong fingers he would grip my back, my hips and buttocks so that the angry imprint of his fingers would remain for days, overlaid upon earlier bruises; he would arch his backbone above me, he would collapse upon me sobbing and groaning falling from a great height; he would bury his burning face in my neck; he would bury his burning face between my breasts that were chafed, aching; he would lie exhausted in my arms as if defeated; I would stroke his tight-curly oily hair I loved; I would cradle his heavy, handsome head I loved; I could not see his eyes I loved but it was to his eyes, his vision I spoke; I spoke softly and quietly and unhurried now in the aftermath of our lovemaking as in the aftermath of struggle in which opponents embrace or sink together to earth mutually exhausted, doomed; I spoke wonderingly to him of things I had never seen, thoughts I had never had; the bright sea rippling in sunshine where on a wide white beach of sand fine as confectioner’s sugar I ran splashing in the surf cutting my bare foot on a seashell and my mother ran behind me lifting me in her arms as I cried more in surprise than in pain; though the pain came swiftly, throbbing through my foot; and my mother kissed the bleeding cut, and made it well; I told him of my mother whose face was beautiful and loving yet flimsy as rice paper to be marred, torn almost by accident; I told him of my father who’d been in life solid, heavy; heavy-hearted and heavy-footed; yet in death as flimsy as my mother; his handsome ruined face now smudged as in a charcoal drawing; once I had drawn him, in charcoal; a childish face I’d drawn yet recognizable as my father’s; I’d shown it to him, and he’d laughed at first but later took the drawing from me, tore it swiftly in two; always I would recall how he tore the drawing swiftly in two; it had seemed just to me, I’d had no right to draw my father in charcoal; if I cried my tears were the usual false tears for I’d known beforehand I should not have done it; I should not have transgressed; I had not the right; children have no power, and children have no right. Yet somehow my father’s face was a charcoal-smudged face; it was not a face you could see clearly; my father who was a big bag of guts as once he’d spoken of himself in drunken good-natured disgust; a big bag of guts with a love of beauty, good things; a big bag of guts who’d wanted to be something more; not knowing what that might be; waiting like most men to be told what that might be; not knowing, and waiting, and not being told. Like most men simply dying when he’d worn out. These things I told my lover Vernor Matheius who lay warm, heavy and motionless in my arms; his face hidden from me; his eyes hidden from me; slowly I stroked his back, his knotty spine and ribs; this was the great happiness of my life holding Vernor Matheius in my arms stroking him slowly, in wonder; that which we do not deserve alone fills us with wonder; my voice was soft with wonder, a voice that surprised me with its clarity, and its authority; I told my lover how at night in the country often I’d heard Death outside in the cornstalks in the wind of October and November; I heard Death entering my grandparents’ farmhouse too flimsy to keep Death out; I lay awake hearing Death moving across the creaking floorboards downstairs and I prayed that Death would pass me by, and the others in the house; I prayed that Death would pass me by, and take another in the house; I saw that all who lived lay very still in the terror of Death waiting for Death to pass by, and to take another; as in a herd terrorized by predators there must be the wish, the single flame-like collective thought Take another! take another and not me! This was a secret of which adults would not speak; it was a secret of which no one, not even the great philosophers, would speak; because it is so stark, so simple; it is a secret lacking a revelation.

       And so we would drift into sleep. Vernor Matheius who was my lover at last, and I who was Anellia, his Anellia whose true name he never troubled to know; or, if he knew, never spoke. In those weeks, months of our love never spoke. Sharing a single cramped bed, a bed with a flat, trampled mattress, sagging in the center like a bent-back beast of burden this mattress, suffused with our sweat, the smell of his hair, underarms and feet, the smell of his stopped-up semen liquid and milky in the limp, sad condom drooping from his penis now quieted, subdued after sexual triumph which was indistinguishable from defeat; the individual that is the dupe of the species; the individual who resists all instincts, all urges and demands of the species; we would share this cramped bed, and this hour, but not the same sleep; for where Vernor Matheius drifted at last to sleep I did not know though jealously I would have wished to know, my fingers in his hair I drifted off at least to sleep, where he went I could not follow.



“The mind can neither imagine nor recollect save while in the body.”

And what of my life in those months that was not Vernor Matheius, what of the vast world that was not Vernor Matheius, what of a girl whose body I inhabited who was not “Anellia,” what connection, what vision seen through her eyes, had she no future, had she no hope, did none of this exist?

       Yes. But no.

Joyce Carol Oates is currently Visiting Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is the author, most recently, of the novel Breathe and the story collection The (Other) You (both Ecco), which includes several stories that originally appeared in Conjunctions. She is the 2019 recipient of the Jerusalem Prize.