ne of the things I did not see fit to tell Joe Morgan (for to do so would have
been to testify further against myself) is that it was never very much of a
chore for me, at various times, to maintain with perfectly equal unenthusiasm
contradictory, or at least polarized, opinions at once on a given subject. I
did so too easily, perhaps, for my own ultimate mobility. Thus it seemed to me
that the Doctor was insane, and that he was profound; that Joe was brilliant
and also absurd; that Rennie was strong and weak; and that Jacob Horner--owl,
peacock, chameleon, donkey, and popinjay, fugitive from a medieval
bestiary--was at the same time giant and dwarf, plenum and vacuum, and
admirable and contemptible. Had I explained this to Joe he'd have added it to
his store of evidence that I did not exist: my own feeling was that it was and
was not such evidence. I explain it now in order to make as clear as I can what
I mean when I say that I was shocked and not surprised, disgusted and amused,
excited and bored, when, the evening after the conversation just recorded,
Rennie came up to my room. I'd had a brilliant day with my students, explaining
gerunds, participles, and infinitives, and my eloquence had brought me around
to feeling both guilty and nonchalant about the Morgan affair.
"Well, I'll be damned!" I said when I saw her. "Come on in! Have you been excommunicated, or what?"
"I didn't want to come up here," Rennie said tersely. "I didn't want to see you again at all, Jake."
"Oh. But people want to do the things they do."
"Joe drove me in, Jake. He told me to come up here."
This was intended as a bombshell, I believe, but I was not in an explodable mood.
"What the hell for?"
Rennie had started out with pretty firm, solemn control, but now she got choky and couldn't, or wouldn't, answer the question.
"Has he turned you out?"
"No. Can't you understand why he sent me up here? Please don't make me explain it!" Tears were imminent.
"Honestly, I couldn't guess, Rennie. Are we supposed to reenact the crime in a more analyzable way, or what?"
Well, that finished her control; the head-whipping began. Rennie, incidentally, looked great to me. She'd obviously been suffering intensely for the past few days, and, like exhausted strength, it lent her the sexual attractiveness that tormented women occasionally have. Tender, lovelike feelings announced their presence in me.
"Everything that's happened wrenches my heart," I said to her, laying my hand on her shoulder. "You've no idea how much I sympathize with Joe, and how much more with you. But he sure is making a Barnum and Bailey out of it, isn't he? This sending you up here is the damnedest thing I ever heard of. Is it supposed to be punishment?"
"It's not ridiculous unless you're determined to see it that way," Rennie said, tearfully but vehemently. "Of course you'd say it was, just so you won't have to take Joe seriously."
"What's it all about, for heaven's sake?"
"I didn't want to see you again, Jake. I told Joe that. He told me everything you said to him last night, and at first I thought you were lying all the way. I guess you know I've hated you ever since we made love; when I told Joe about it, I didn't leave out anything we did--not a single detail--but I blamed you for everything."
"That's okay. I don't have any real opinion on the subject."
"I can't blame you any more," Rennie went on. "It's too easy, and it doesn't really solve anything. I guess I don't have any opinion either--and Joe doesn't either."
"He's heartbroken. So am I. But he's determined not to evade the question in any way, or take a stand just to cover up the hurt. You don't realize what an obsession this is with him! Sometimes I've thought we'd both lose our minds this past week. This thing is tearing us up! But Joe would rather be torn up than falsify the trouble in any way. That's why I'm here."
She hung her head.
"I told him I couldn't stand to see you again, whether you were responsible or not. He got angry and said I was being melodramatic, evading the question. I thought he was going to hit me again! But instead he calmed down and--even made love to me, and explained that if we were ever going to end our trouble we'd have to be extra careful not to make up any versions of things that would keep us from facing the facts squarely. If anything, we had to do all we could to throw ourselves as hard as possible against the facts, and as often as possible, no matter how much it hurt. He said that as it stands now we're defeated, and the only possible chance to save anything is never to leave the problem for a minute. I told him I'd die if I had to live with it much longer the way I've been doing, and he said he might too, but it's the only way. I guess you think this is ridiculous."
"No opinion," I said, meaning I felt contradictory opinions.
"One of the things he thinks we mustn't do is drop you yet, or let you drop us. That's why he brought me up here. Refusing to see you again is--evading the issue."
"Well, I'm happy as hell to see you, but I must say I'm all in favor of evading any issue if it's both painful and insoluble. Aren't you?"
With all her heart, I could see, she was indeed.
"No," she said determinedly. "I agree with Joe completely."
"Well, what are we supposed to do? Talk philosophy?"
Head-whipping. "Jake, for Christ's sake, tell me honestly what you think of Joe."
"I honestly have a number of opinions," I smiled.
"What are they?"
"Well, in the first place--not first in order of intensity--he's noble as the dickens."
Rennie laughed and cried at once.
"He's noble, strong, and brave, more than anybody I've ever seen. A disaster for him is a disaster for reason, intelligence, and civilization, because he's the quintessence of these things. There's nobody else like him in the United States. I believe this."
Rennie so melted that, had I chosen, I could have embraced her at that moment without protest.
"In the second place," I said, "he's completely ridiculous. Contemptible. A buffoon, a sophist, and a boor. Arrogant, small, intolerant, a little bit cruel, and even stupid. He uses logic and this childish honesty as a club and a shield at the same time. Or you could say he's just insane, a monomaniac: he's fixed in the delusion that intelligence will solve all problems."
"But you know very well he could reply to that!"
"Sure, he can defend his position and his method, but he can't solve this problem happily in terms of it. But you know, all these versions of him are complimentary, because they're extreme. My last opinion, which I don't hold any more strongly than the others, is that he's a little bit of all these things, but mainly just a pretty unremarkable guy, more pathetic than tragic, and more amusing than contemptible. Faintly grotesque and in the last analysis not terribly charming or even pleasant. Kind of silly and awfully naive. That's our Joseph. Not a man to take too seriously, because he simply doesn't represent his position brilliantly enough or even coherently enough. I should add that I feel all these things about myself, too, and some more besides."
"Jake, you know he could answer all those charges."
"Sure. The beauty of it is that it doesn't make any difference whether he can or not. They're not charges: they're opinions. Hell, Rennie, don't get the wrong idea: I like Joe all right."
"You're acting awfully superior."
I laughed. "One of my opinions, along with the one that I'm inferior to Joe in most ways, is that I'm superior to him in most ways. You be honest with me now: what does Joe really have on his mind in sending you up here?"
"We've had to agree that even if you're the one who started the whole thing, I couldn't have allowed you to influence me if I hadn't wanted to be influenced. You took advantage of a weak time in my life, but you didn't rape me. I can't deny Joe's statement that if I ended up in bed with you it's because when all's said and done I wanted to, no matter how repugnant the idea is now. So Joe insists that all my dislike for you now is beside the point. He asked me how I'd have felt three weeks ago if he'd suggested that I make love to you, and I had to say, 'I don't know.' Then he asked me how I'd feel if he suggested it now, and I told him I was horrified and repelled by the idea. He said that's the sort of reaction we have to guard against, because it obscures the problem. We have to be as honest as possible about what we really believe, and not confuse it with what we think is safe or prudent to believe, and we have to act on our real beliefs so we can know where we stand. And apparently--this is what Joe said--I believe it's all right for me to make love to other men, at least to you, whether I want to admit it to myself or not, since I did it."
"Jake--he sent me up here to do it again."
"But you disagree with him about this, don't you?"
She did, of course, as much as she'd disagreed about the necessity of not evading the whole issue, but she'd already committed herself to agreeing with him on that, and for that matter on everything else. It took her a moment to answer.
"I hate the idea, Jake! Everything in me recoils at the idea. But that hate is just like my feelings about you. Nobody has to point that out to me. I'm lost, Jake! I'm not as strong as Joe or even you. I'm not strong enough to get caught in this!"
Well, now. It occurred to me that Joe's position, while entirely illogical (Rennie's single adultery, of course, did not at all necessarily imply that she believed extramarital sex was generally "all right" with either other men in general or me in particular: at most it implied that she'd been willing to do it just once), afforded me a chance to really persecute her if I wanted to. It was a great temptation to cut short the conversation and say, "Okay, there's the bed"; but I was not in a Rennie-torturing mood.
"Are you willing to do it, then?" I asked her.
"No! God, it's the last thing in the world I could ever do again!"
"Joe's insane. You know, I could say this strikes me as being perverted on his part."
"Go ahead and say it. Then you won't have to try to understand him."
"That's a wonderful line," I laughed. "It cancels out any possible criticism anyone could ever make of him! That line and the one about his being strong enough to be a caricature of himself--those two defenses make anybody unassailable."
"But in his case they're true," Rennie insisted.
"What time is he picking you up?"
"We assumed you'd drive me home afterwards," she said glibly.
"After we'd finished?"
"Stop it, please!"
"Well, are you ready to go? Home, I mean?"
She looked at me, bewildered.
"He's not going to examine you each time, is he?" I grinned. "He couldn't tell anyhow. All you have to do is swear on your scout's honor we did our duty."
Now for the first time she saw the real nature of her dilemma: she had to choose between going to bed with me, which was repugnant to her, and lying to Joe, which was also repugnant to her, since the third alternative--asserting her own opinion by simply refusing to comply with his policy decisions at all--was apparently beyond her strength.
"Oh, God! What would you do if you were me, Jake?"
"I'd have told him to go to hell!" I said cheerfully. "I wouldn't have come up here in the first place. But since you did, if I were you I wouldn't hesitate to lie to him. Give him a string of gory details. Tell him we made love five times and committed sodomy twice. He's asking for it. I'll bet he won't send you up here again if you make it sound hot enough. It's the old trick of getting rid of a bad law by overenforcing it."
Rennie bit her knuckle and whipped her head shortly.
"I can't lie to him. I can't ever do that again."
"Then tell him to go to hell."
"You don't understand how this thing has affected him, Jake. He's not insane; I couldn't even call him neurotic. I believe he's thinking more clearly and intensely than he ever has in his life. But this is a life-and-death business with him. With both of us It's the biggest crisis we ever had."
"What could he do if you just said you won't string along with him on this one thing?"
"I can imagine him walking out flat, for good, or killing himself or all of us. I can even imagine him bringing me right back up here and coming up himself to make sure "
"To make sure you do what you're supposed to want to do? God, this is funny!"
"He'd think I was letting him down completely. Throwing up my hands."
"Well, then, for Christ's sake let's go to bed. If you can't pretend to take him seriously, let's really take him seriously. I guarantee he won't send you up here again." I stood up. "Come on, girl: you can tell him all the things I said before and be telling the truth. We'll give old Joe an object lesson."
"How can you even think of it?" Rennie cried.
To tell the truth, my feelings were ambivalent as usual. Rennie's conflict was the classical one between what she liked and what she approved of--rather, between her dislike of further adultery and her disapproval of lying to Joe--but mine was between two things that I approved of and also between two things that I liked. I approved of disengaging myself from any further participation in the business that had so disrupted the Morgans' extraordinary relationship (which, I might as well add, I regarded as an admirable one, as a matter of fact, but which I knew better than to think I could have enjoyed personally in very many of my moods) yet at the same time I approved of the idea of going along with Joe on this point, both because I had pledged my co-operation and because I really believed that one good dose of his medicine would make him change his prescription. Also, though I was at times entirely capable of enjoying sexual sadism, I was not just then in a frame of mind to like an intercourse that would be pure torture for Rennie; nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, her suffering exerted a powerful physical attraction on me. My guilt feelings, incidentally, although I'd still have agreed to their propriety, had got lost in the melodrama of Joe's new step.
I was too entirely astonished and intrigued by his action to devote much attention to feeling guilty.
"I'm not taking a stand," I declared. "I'm an issue evader from way back. I'll go along with you any way you want."
"I can't do it!" Rennie wailed.
"Let's go home, then."
"I can't! Please, please, either throw me out or rape me, Jake! I can't do anything!"
"I'm not going to make up your mind," I said.
This too, I suppose, was sadistic, but it was pretty much honest; I really couldn't have done very wholeheartedly either of the things she requested, and it is easier to sit still halfheartedly than to do dramatic things halfheartedly. Rennie sobbed for a full two minutes, huddled in her chair: this affair was indeed tearing her up.
Ah me, and there were so many other ways it could have been handled. Perhaps, I reflected, what would eventually destroy both Morgans, after all, was lack of imagination. I glanced up at Laocoon: his agony was abstract and unsuggestive.
Excerpted from The End of the Road by John Barth.
Copyright © 1958, 1967, 1988 by John Barth. Excerpted by permission of
Anchor Books, Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.