F Scott Fitzgerald – Tender is the Night,1934

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His most interesting case was in the main building. The patient was a woman of thirty who had been in the clinic six months; she was an American painter who had lived long in Paris. They had no very satisfactory history of her. A cousin had happened upon her all mad and gone and after an unsatisfactory interlude at one of the whoopee cures that fringed the city, dedicated largely to tourist victims of drug and drink, he had managed to get her to Switzerland. On her admittance she had been exceptionally pretty — now she was a living agonizing sore. All blood tests had failed to give a positive reaction and the trouble was unsatisfactorily catalogued as nervous eczema. For two months she had lain under it, as imprisoned as in the Iron Maiden. She was coherent, even brilliant, within the limits of her special hallucinations.

She was particularly his patient. During spells of overexcitement he was the only doctor who could “do anything with her.” Several weeks ago, on one of many nights that she had passed in sleepless torture Franz had succeeded in hypnotizing her into a few hours of needed rest, but he had never again succeeded. Hypnosis was a tool that Dick had distrusted and seldom used, for he knew that he could not always summon up the mood in himself — he had once tried it on Nicole and she had scornfully laughed at him.

The woman in room twenty could not see him when he came in — the area about her eyes was too tightly swollen. She spoke in a strong, rich, deep, thrilling voice.

How long will this last? Is it going to be forever?”

It’s not going to be very long now. Doctor Ladislau tells me there are whole areas cleared up.”

If I knew what I had done to deserve this I could accept it with equanimity.”

It isn’t wise to be mystical about it — we recognize it as a nervous phenomenon. It’s related to the blush — when you were a girl, did you blush easily?”

She lay with her face turned to the ceiling.

I have found nothing to blush for since I cut my wisdom teeth.”

Haven’t you committed your share of petty sins and mistakes?”

I have nothing to reproach myself with.”

You’re very fortunate.”

The woman thought a moment; her voice came up through her bandaged face afflicted with subterranean melodies:

I’m sharing the fate of the women of my time who challenged men to battle.”

To your vast surprise it was just like all battles,” he answered, adopting her formal diction.

Just like all battles.” She thought this over. “You pick a set- up, or else win a Pyrrhic victory, or you’re wrecked and ruined — you’re a ghostly echo from a broken wall.”

You are neither wrecked nor ruined,” he told her. “Are you quite sure you’ve been in a real battle?”

Look at me!” she cried furiously.

You’ve suffered, but many women suffered before they mistook themselves for men.” It was becoming an argument and he retreated. “In any case you mustn’t confuse a single failure with a final defeat.”

She sneered. “Beautiful words,” and the phrase transpiring up through the crust of pain humbled him.

We would like to go into the true reasons that brought you here —” he began but she interrupted.

I am here as a symbol of something. I thought perhaps you would know what it was.”

You are sick,” he said mechanically.

Then what was it I had almost found?”

A greater sickness.”

That’s all?”

That’s all.” With disgust he heard himself lying, but here and now the vastness of the subject could only be compressed into a lie. “Outside of that there’s only confusion and chaos. I won’t lecture to you — we have too acute a realization of your physical suffering. But it’s only by meeting the problems of every day, no matter how trifling and boring they seem, that you can make things drop back into place again. After that — perhaps you’ll be able again to examine —”

He had slowed up to avoid the inevitable end of his thought: “— the frontiers of consciousness.” The frontiers that artists must explore were not for her, ever. She was fine-spun, inbred — eventually she might find rest in some quiet mysticism. Exploration was for those with a measure of peasant blood, those with big thighs and thick ankles who could take punishment as they took bread and salt, on every inch of flesh and spirit.

Not for you, he almost said. It’s too tough a game for you.

Yet in the awful majesty of her pain he went out to her unreservedly, almost sexually. He wanted to gather her up in his arms, as he so often had Nicole, and cherish even her mistakes, so deeply were they part of her. The orange light through the drawn blind, the sarcophagus of her figure on the bed, the spot of face, the voice searching the vacuity of her illness and finding only remote abstractions.

As he arose the tears fled lava-like into her bandages.

That is for something,” she whispered. “Something must come out of it.”

He stooped and kissed her forehead.

We must all try to be good,” he said.

F Scott Fitzgerald,1896-1940.   Tender is the Night,1934, Chapter 39

Image: Zelda Fitzgerald,1900-1948. Chrysanthemums, watercolour, 15 3/4 x 11 ½“

Image: Zelda Fitzgerald,1900-1948. Zelda Sayre surrounded by flowers while in ballet costume, representing “Polly” in “Les Mysterieuses” Ball, Montgomery, 1919

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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