When we come across a writer and a work we think our readers might like to get a glimpse of, that’s just what we give them. This excerpt, taken from Burton Porter’s The Moebius Strip, offers a glimpse into the seemingly incomparable, yet oddly parallel lives of a French sensualist and a New England minister. The inspiration for the title?
A Moebius strip is a band with a half twist along its axis and the two ends joined together. It has only one surface and one edge, and is considered an unorientable figure. Because of its properties a fish swimming inside a tube of this shape would have its left and right side interchanged at the completion of the circuit, and two insects crawling at different speeds on opposite sides of a Moebius strip would eventually find themselves side by side.
There’s nothing to start off your weekend like some quality fiction. So go on, jump in.
We waded into the sea feeling the smooth and oval stones beneath our feet, narrowing our eyes against the sun’s glare on the waves, the water warm as an animal against our legs. Véronique’s expression was the same as on those brilliant mornings when she stepped barefooted from the porte-fenêtre to the terrace tiles, shaking back her hair and smoothing it behind her neck with both her hands, her lips half parted to accept the wafer of the daylight on her tongue. The shifting stones gave way to weeds, and then with water licking at our ribs, we thrust ourselves into the sea and felt the weight of gravity dissolve.
We swam with lazy strokes, moving languidly, sometimes diving down so we could feel the water’s density against our ears, then rising to the surface as if from a sleep to float outspread and spent upon the waves. The Cannes hotels were white against the shore, the sea and sky were purest azure, and we felt our bodies rise and fall with every swell. We did not touch for fear that we might pull each other down, that reaching out we both would sink, but floated at a distance, neither joined together nor apart.
We drifted, lolled, gave ourselves to the melting sun and dissolution of the waves, willing to assume the mode of being of the sea without resolve. The endless process of becoming, which resisted being anything determinate, the constant flux that never coalesced enough to be defined, suited us as something that we recognized within ourselves.
Then on the matelat, the parasol collapsed into a cypress shape, we let our bones be liquefied by sunlight pouring from a gap within the perfect blue, and without energy and will we drifted into sleep that seemed more like the state of stones…
A woman’s body or the act of love means nothing but itself. It does not mean but is, just as paintings are not symbols standing for some higher truth. There is no other realm that sex reveals, no goal beyond the excitation and release. What purpose has a rock except the value given by the man who throws it at his enemies, or works it as a whetstone, or marks the boundary of his land? And what does sex express but pleasure – and that’s all we should expect.
Even now when sensuality is lost to me, I still regard it as supreme. The reason for my living like a moth in amber lies elsewhere. It’s not the fault of the museum of art if blind men find it dull.
I know the women are there beyond the terrace doors, and soon la petit mort will come. Their perspiration will start to cool, translucent skin will grow opaque once more, and arms and legs will feel like fallen trees. All will be motionless, silent as a vineyard at midday.
I can hear the rustling of their clothes, which means that Véronique will join me soon. Nane will bring the pastis and the water in an earthen jug, a servant once again, carrying a tray. She will mix the liquids in the glass, offering just the faintest smile as acknowledgment of what had just transpired. Each of us will understand the way in which that tray of drinks is necessary to maintain relations in the house.
Véronique will stretch luxuriously in her chair, lethargic after love, and we will watch the movement of the water silently. The end may be the same, a lassitude, quiescence, but the starting point makes all the difference.
But each scene happens under glass, displaced and oddly inaccessible. Crowded at the telescope’s small end, they stand removed from breathing things, reductions, diagrams, tromp-l’oeil. I can see the bays and headlands from the terrace every day, the womanly line stretching from St. Tropez to Monaco, yet I miss it like an exile. The lassitude of those waves stretching themselves to the sand is like a tale of water.
I am an eavesdropper, a voyeur, hoping for a glimpse of sensuality as I once did as a boy outside an open shuttered window, standing beyond the oblong of light, beyond the reaches of the woman’s recognition, touching her skin in my quickening imagination and all the while confirming my aloneness by inhabiting a circumference of darkness.
It is an odd banishment when I am free to roam the shore as I please, when the wind that carries salt and spray onto the land is the same air that I breathe. I share the movement of the scaled and crusted life, with children digging pointlessly in sand, and drifting gulls that feel the sun upon their backs…
It is a sweet loss, untainted by remorse. I wish the joy had stayed, that I were more aware when it occurred, but penitence means sinfulness and I feel like the lamb. It is nostalgia not regret that qualifies my memories, like watchtowers silhouetted on the basse corniche, their empty windows facing the sea, devoid of sight.
Why should I feel ashamed that dancers once seduced me, or feel sorry for the women I have known in Cannes, in Paris, St. Tropez? Yes, I orchestrated Véronique, Nane and Ali, even Sibyl and Matthew at Oxford, but no one is due an apology.
Something precious hovered in the atmosphere I breathed, a nameless quiddity within my sight but out of reach, revealing moderation as a lame retreat to resignation and to death. To listen to an inner voice of conscience, temperance, religion, reason when a woman’s flesh lies open to my gaze, receptive to my touch, is a betrayal of life, the cardinal sin, tempting those who need to justify their days on earth. Only holy ones show such restraint, those who feel the weight of crosses round their necks whenever they respond to erotic sights. They are ashamed of what they like, at home with misery, denial, pain that they call bitter medicine, a tonic for the soul. What they won’t allow themselves is far more telling than their vices; self-denial is the one temptation they cannot resist.
But how can people limit their existence so to follow principles along a path that skirts the olive trees? Do their hungers make them so afraid that they would choose an Alpine landscape over Mediterranean waters, the stark and white and angular to deep-toned flesh ripened by the southern sun?
“Don’t patronize me Mat,” Margaret said, her voice rising. “I know about Marx and religion being the opiate of the masses.” She put a hand through her dark hair and leaned against the car window.
“Opiates are now the religion of the masses.” I replied, trying to regain the upper hand. At this point in our marriage, neither of us would surrender an advantage easily.
She didn’t smile but gazed ahead at the New England countryside now ablaze with autumn colors. I glanced at her quickly and reminded myself that my doubts about religion had repercussions for our relationship.
“I don’t know how you can still preach on Sundays.” Margaret continued, sitting up abruptly. She waived her hand at the folds of hills covered with trees in crimson, russet, gold. “Where do you think all this came from?” she asked rhetorically. “You once said these are the brushstrokes of God.”
She sounded distraught, challenging me. I told myself not to answer because we could withdraw from each other while feeling just as much as before, and I did not want that. Even though St. John said the truth shall make you free, not knowing can be best.
“Where did he come from to work these wonders?” I asked, despite
“From nowhere, from everywhere, I don’t know; he always was.”
“Then maybe everything always was and we don’t need God to explain it.”
“Word games,” Margaret sneered. “Logic chopping.”
“Whatever is will always be, whatever is not can never be.” I chanted. “If God always was then the world too might always have been, and if everything has to begin then so does God. You can take the even or take the odd. That’s the trouble with the domino theory – there may not be a first domino to flick.”
Maggie was an easy target, so all my shots were cheap. Of course I knew more about theology than she did but her insights into photography and art were shrewd. I was more logical, but she was more often right. Sometimes she reminded me of Sibyl, someone Margaret would never know.
The Volvo moved through what she believed was God’s country, mounted a hill and plunged into another blazing valley. The colors transfigured the land. There was something comforting about a car speeding across the surface of the earth, wrapping people within itself, muffling sounds and suspending time, granting us synoptic vision. The asphalt was new and very black, bisected by a fresh white line that rose and fell then curved away into the distance. We travel through space with the ease of angels. Still, if Christ had ascended to heaven at the speed of light, he would still be traveling.
“Mat, do you remember telling me that the soul and beauty must have been made by God because they have no use, so Darwin can’t account for them.”
I did say that, centuries ago, but it was not true. Nature could throw up extravagances, florid things like butterflies and angelfish, peacocks and orchids. Beauty can be protective, functional. Besides, that would mean God only made things that were useless, that whatever has no point is God’s creation. The soul was a hard one though, because everyone believed in an intangible something, deep inside. And they could view themselves, and view themselves viewing themselves, and so on forever. Now there’s an infinite regress. Conundrums. Aporias.
“It’s pretty obvious when things are real,” Margaret went on, “like the moment we decided to marry, do you remember Mat, in that restaurant in Rockport on the North Shore? When I said yes you leaned across the table and kissed me, and that was real.”
Lovers do deceive themselves though, and how can we separate false love from the true kind? Margaret believes it is so if you think so, but nonsense can masquerade as truth, especially when it passeth all understanding. In the seminary Wishart had said God is a paradox, that three persons in one is a higher truth, but why not call it a self-contradiction and be done with it? Some things are absurd, and they don’t make sense by labeling them a mystery.
But Maggie was being tender, and that meant I should be the same. Usually her Boston, business manner carried over to our relationship, and that hardness often stood between us. More and more, it seemed to be a part of her.
“Yes,” I replied, “We do love each other, and that’s difficult to explain.”
What she wanted of me was so ordinary that it was mean to raise questions. My mind kept drawing parallels with the cosmos like some metaphysical poet, which seemed remote from the business of living. No wonder Margaret was exasperated by my doubts. She is a practical woman after all, and my income depended on my faith, although her gallery brought in much more than my salary.
I believe. Oh Lord help mine unbelief.
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