A common reaction to La noia is that Moravia has succeeded all too well: that is, his study of boredom is itself boring. His protagonist, himself a boring character, not only fails to establish a relationship to the external world; worse, his failures are merely replicated to an absurd, exasperating extent. To many, Dino’s tireless obsession in the midst of exhaustion, his unfathomable ennui, his stubborn pursuit of Cecilia, which time and again makes him miserable, make up a laborious story of a character who is spoiled and maladjusted, if not bizarre.
Yet our author contended in his Frammento d’autobiografia:
Il tema dominante della mia opera sembra essere il rapporto dell’uomo con la realtà … In realtà esso è il problema fondamentale del nostro tempo … Gli indifferenti e gli altri romanzi che seguirono, hanno tentato di esprimere in personaggi e situazioni realistiche l’urgenza di questa crisi.i
If we can believe Moravia, if La noia is realistic, Dino’s problem is our problem; moreover, our response to it is essentially the same as Dino’s response. That is, although we find that satisfaction is ever elusive, we continue to pursue it; having been beguiled by one mirage, we obey the immediate impulse to chase another. This running on and on in search of gratification, from one apparently varied but essentially repetitive experience to another, can only serve to perpetuate a frustrating and pathetic existence. In this way, the realism of La noia consists precisely in Dino’s instinctively repeated failures to escape boredom through appropriation of an ever more delusory reality.
But then there is the Epilogue, which depicts a radical departure from the preceding nine chapters. During the convalescence following his attempted suicide, Dino seems to undergo a miracle cure of his malaise. Every stimulus he had ever tried rendered him even more bored than before; conversely, in a state of complete physical and mental inaction Dino suffers from it no longer. Thus, in spite of himself he appears to have resolved an insoluble dilemma, the fundamental problem of our time. This paradoxical, and by no means obvious solution may well have been borrowed from Buddhist philosophy.
While we cannot determine precisely how deeply read Moravia was in any particular discipline, evidence from texts and interviews reveals that he was at least familiar with the oriental religion and apparently favoured it over those of the West: for example, in Un idea dell’India he wrote, “Come indiano ti direi: l’Europa, quel continente dove l’uomo è convinto di esistere e di essere al centro del mondo, e l’azione è preferita alla contemplazione; l’Europa … che cosa ha a che fare con la religione?”ii In a later interview he said, “Ora, a me il monoteismo non mi garba affatto. Non corrisponde ad un mio bisogno. Se dovessi proprio scegliere una religione, preferirei il Buddismo, che è piuttosto una filosofia.”iii Moreover, he at least understood that the core of Buddhism is the doctrine that existence is dukkha : unsatisfactory, absurd and fraught with discontent.iv As he stated to Enzo Siciliano, “Il discorso del Buddha comincia col dire che la vita è infelicità, e che perciò bisogna disfarsi di essa.”v This is the first of the so-called Four Noble Truths: existence is dukkha ; dukkha is caused by ignorance and desire (avijjā and taṇhā ); by ending ignorance and desire dukkha is also brought to an end; there is a means to end avijjā and taṇhā. Thus by transcending mundane existence (itself conditioned by avijjā and taṇhā ), one may attain the state known as nirvāna or nibbāna. The alternative is to remain a puthujjana, a worldling, l’homme moyen sensuel stuck in saṃsāra : literally, “going on and on”, vainly seeking satisfaction in a pointless series of events.
Dino appears to realise the first of these truths when he presents an unconventional definition of his affliction:
Per molti la noia è il contrario del divertimento; e divertimento è distrazione, dimenticanza. Per me, invece, la noia non è il contrario del divertimento; potrei dire, anzi, addirittura, che per certi aspetti essa rassomiglia al divertimento in quanto, appunto, provoca distrazione e dimenticanza, sia pure di un genere molto particolare. La noia, per me, è propriamente una specie di insufficienza o inadeguatezza o scarsità della realtà.vi
The insufficiency, inadequacy and “falling short” of reality that Dino tries to convey is succinctly expressed by the phrase sabbe saṅkhārā dukkha : suffering, frustration or discontent is inherent in all contingent things. The horror of Dino’s discovery is that no person, object, sensation or experience can provide lasting pleasure or sustain his interest. All are essentially boring and absurd. It is for this reason that the search for satisfaction is both endless and futile. Dino says that when he is bored he feels just like the man who is trying to keep warm on a winter night, by means of a blanket too short to cover his entire body: if he pulls it up towards his chin his feet get cold, and when he lowers it to warm his feet, his chest gets cold. Most of us are so conditioned by conventional ways of thought that we fail to notice the egocentric view of reality conveyed by Dino’s metaphor: we seldom consider an object except in terms of our own desires for pleasure and comfort. Which of us, in the predicament Dino describes, would conclude that his body was inadequate, i.e. too long for the blanket? For Moravia, this is the fundamental problem: the subject-I vainly strives to appropriate objective reality for its own purposes. But as Adriana says, “la normalità della vita non erano i miei progetti di felicità bensí il contrario, tutte le cose cioè che sono ribelli a piani e programmi, che sono casuali, che si rivelano difettose e imprevedibili, che procurano delusione e dolore.”vii If we were to look at the blanket with what Buddhists call yoniso manasakāra or “thorough attention”, we would see that the blanket simply is what it is; the defect—and the concomitant dukkha—arise as soon as we bring the “I” into play, regarding the object as mine, as there for me.
More importantly, the unfortunate man continues to toss and turn, to raise and lower the blanket, no matter how many times he finds that nothing he does changes its size or shape. As Dino puts it, he hopes for some sort of miracle. The deluded man expects that by means of that same blanket, already found to be too small, he will somehow be able to cover himself entirely. Caught in avijjā, he cannot help but strive for a static position of comfort which he already knows does not exist. Avijjā leads us to try to escape our existential predicament by the very means that occasions it—much like the persistent urge to scratch an itch when scratching is precisely what perpetuates the itching.viii
Dino gives two more comparisons in an attempt to explain himself, and the last of the three is especially noteworthy: “la mia noia potrebbe essere definita una malattia degli oggetti, consistente in un avvizzimento o perdita di vitalità quasi repentina; come a vedere in pochi secondi, per trasformazioni successive e rapidissime, un fiore passare dal boccio all’appassimento e alla polvere” (p.7). What is wrong with those objects? They will not stay still for him. But wherein lies the disease? Again, it cannot reside merely in the objects themselves; the boredom or the disease of things can only arise in the observer, not in the observed. Yet Dino transfers the “blame” to the flower: his boredom, he says, could be defined as “una malattia degli oggetti”. Although he takes a false step in terms of logic, his contention is nevertheless consistent with experience: we tend to say, “The film was boring”, as if the boredom resided in the film, not in our lack of interest in it.
This delusory relationship is in fact the basis of the profound malaise that afflicts Dino alone. Others, such as his father, suffer from a conventional boredom. Although the symptoms may be similar, the nature of Dino’s disorder is altogether different:
… non potevo fare a meno di provare una specie di fraterna pietà per quella figura patetica e sbiadita, sempre piú sbiadita a misura che il tempo passava, nella quale mi pareva di ravvisare … alcuni tratti in comune con me. Ma … mio padre, è vero, aveva anche lui sofferto di noia; ma in lui questa sofferenza si era risolta in un vagabondaggio felice attraverso i paesi; la sua noia, in altri termini, era la noia volgare, come la si intende normalmente, che non chiedeva di meglio che essere alleviata da sensazioni nuove e rare. E infatti mio padre aveva creduto nel mondo, almeno quello della geografia; mentre io non riuscivo a credere neppure in un bicchiere (p. 15).
His father, like most persons, believes that he can overcome boredom by experiencing new and exotic sensations. But from Dino’s standpoint, the “vagabondaggio felice” is ultimately a constant, pointless repetition of experience; for this reason, his father seems more and more a pathetic figure with the passage of time. If any one of those voyages had been truly satisfactory, his Wanderlust would have been sated instead of aggravated. For Dino’s father, for the puthujjana (“one who believes in the world”), the whole of existence is an attempt to escape boredom through “dromomania”. Dino, however, cannot fool himself into believing that any temporary diversion will cure his chronic affliction. Thus, his boredom cannot be so easily palliated or alleviated; he suffers it at a level that others, such as his parents, could not possibly conceive:
Ciò che mi colpiva, soprattutto, era che non volevo fare assolutamente niente, pur desiderando ardentemente fare qualche cosa … Dunque, io sentivo che … non volevo dipingere ma neppure non dipingere … e cosí via. Dico sentivo, ma dovrei dire piuttosto che provavo ripugnanza, ribrezzo, orrore.
Ogni tanto, tra queste frenesie della noia, mi domandavo se per caso non desiderassi morire … Ma allora, con stupore, mi accorgevo che sebbene non mi piacesse vivere, non volevo neppure morire … In realtà, come pensavo qualche volta, io non volevo tanto morire quanto non continuare a vivere in questo modo (pp. 21-22).
As the Prologue concludes, we find that conventional alternatives present no choice at all. Whether he paints or does not, reality will remain insufficient and he will remain dissatisfied; the problem of desire cannot be solved by the appeasement of desire; the universal problem cannot be solved on the level of the particular.ix Consequently, Dino senses that his entire way of life must come to an end in order for it to have any meaning. He glimpses the structural principle of dukkha : it is not a matter of intermittent discomfort, but rather the innate poverty of every experience, the total inadequacy of reality and the futility of all attempts to establish a rapport with it. This is the rationale for boredom in the verses of the Dhammapada XX: 278: “When one sees through wisdom that all phenomena are dukkha, then one becomes bored with dukkha and abandons it—this is the way to liberation.”x
Hence, if Dino can become truly bored, he will be relieved from existential suffering: that is, if he no longer identifies with reality and no longer demands satisfaction of experience, he will no longer be disappointed by them. He recognises this later when he hopes to become bored with Cecilia and therefore free of the craving she incites. Nevertheless, throughout most of the book he remains susceptible to the latent impulse to escape boredom by means of activity which he knows will lead to further boredom. Reality thus “deceives” him into believing that another existence or way of life will be more pleasurable or less frustrating than the present one. He thus relapses into the vicious circle of avijjā and taṇhā.
In our continual search for gratification we find that any particular pleasure always wanes, we become weary and bored, but still there is a latent urge to find satisfaction in a different one; in other words, we “run on and on” in the maze of saṃsāra without ever finding an exit. Therefore, even though much evidence for the structural principle is presented to us every day, it has little or no effect on our motivations or actions. As Buddhism teaches, our persistent craving (taṇhā ) for pleasure, for satisfaction, constitutes being itself.xi It is our immediate response to contact, one that precedes reason and judgement. If taṇhā were not so ingrained in us, so persistent, Moravia would not have had to write beyond the Prologue. Already, Dino thoroughly understands his boredom, and according to conventional wisdom, he should be well on his way to a cure. However, the problem is much more profound: “Ma tutte le nostre riflessioni, anche le piú razionali, sono originate da un dato oscuro del sentimento. E dei sentimenti non è cosí facile liberarsi come delle idee: queste vanno e vengono, ma i sentimenti rimangono” (p. 19).
In fact, I would argue that the true genius of the novel lies in the exposure of this chasm between reasoning and feeling. Like most intellectuals and so-called “inetti”, Dino has often reflected on the nature of his existence and of his predicament; he seems to have a remarkably clear understanding of himself and of the nature of his malaise. Yet his self-knowledge remains conceptual, and therefore insignificant. None of it alters him or his existential condition; in sum, while he may recognise his mistakes, he does not learn from them.
This is the difference between simply knowing a fact and the experience of yathābhūtaṁñāṇadassanaṁ, “seeing something as it truly is”—a semantic distinction not normally made in the West. While Dino “knows” that his affair with Cecilia is driving him mad, he continues to pursue her; thus, his knowledge is really a state of a-vijjā, wilful “not-knowing”. Despite the poverty of every single experience he has known, he cannot rid himself of the sentiment that a relationship with the world is still possible, and that he could thereby escape boredom: “Ma questa noia, a sua volta, non mi farebbe soffrire tanto se non sapessi che, pur non avendo rapporti con il bicchiere, potrei forse averne … Dunque la noia, oltre alla incapacità di uscire da me stesso, è la consapevolezza teorica che potrei forse uscirne, grazie a non so quale miracolo” (p. 8).xii
The implication is that Dino should not be bored with the world, that his problem is unique. When plagued by dukkha, one tends to imagine that others are not bored, are not suffering—as if they were not subject to the same universal principle. Thus the self-deception persists, and Dino imagines that Luciani can fully possess Cecilia through intercourse, even when his own experience shows him that it is impossible. Similarly, he supposes that “Balestrieri, amante infelice e pessimo pittore, era in un certo modo abbastanza invidiabile” (p. 97). But Balestrieri is, in effect, just as bored as Dino’s father; the only difference is that while his father seeks exotic adventures, Balestrieri prefers erotic ones.
Dino’s susceptibility to avijjā and taṇhā forms the basis of his rapport with his parents. Some might find Freudian implications in his filial relationship, but the imagery of the Dhamma is perhaps more appropriate to a true comprehension of Dino’s predicament.xiii As Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa explains, the major obstacles to freedom are our parents: “in the deeper language of Dhamma, our ‘father’ is ignorance (avijjā) and our ‘mother’ is craving (taṇhā). They must be killed and gotten rid of completely. For instance, the Buddha said: Matram pitram hantvā akatannūsi brāhmana … ‘Kill the ‘father’, kill the ‘mother’, and you will attain nibbāna’.”xiv In fact, according to the doctrine of paṭiccasamuppāda (dependent origination), our very being at this present moment is due to ignorance and craving, and so in a very real sense they are father and mother to us. To kill them both would cut off our (suffering) existence here and now, but such parricide and matricide, as we might suppose, are extremely difficult to achieve. The process entails the eradication of every trait inherited from our “parents”, every latent tendency to fulfil the “self” via pleasure, experience and possession: in sum, a suicide as well.
While Dino’s father “thinks” that through the acquisition of more and more experiences he can escape the poverty of experience itself, his mother is driven to acquire new things simply for the pleasure of possessing them.xv In both cases, the powerful impulse towards appropriation diverts attention from a fundamentally absurd existence, but in neither does accumulation fill the void.
Such primordial ignorance and craving explain why Dino continually does things that are apparently against his will and his better judgement. A whiff of a delicious meal prompts his decision to return to his mother’s home after ten years’ absence. During the luncheon he finds himself fondling the maid, Rita, as if led by an unknown force: “quali che potessero essere le ragioni che avessi per farlo, non avrei mai pensato di metter le mani addosso a una cameriera” (p. 49, italics mine). Could his mother, in terms of Dhamma language, be the cause? At least he thinks so—as soon as he lets go of Rita, his mother takes her foot off of his, “come se avesse agito d’accordo con me”; and after coffee is spilled onto his trousers, she insists that Rita accompany him to his room, thereby providing an excuse for a further erotic encounter (p. 59). The parental, especially maternal, influences on Dino instigate, or even more accurately, activate his relationship to the world around him. Thus he refers to them as a “meccanismo” operating within him yet outside of his control:
E cosí mentre mia madre mi aspettava giú nel salotto per spiegarmi … che cosa volesse dire essere ricchi, Rita aspettava dietro la porta che le gridassi di entrare e le saltassi addosso: due cose apparentemente molto lontane l’una dall’altra, in realtà collegate da un meccanismo segreto e rigoroso. Questo meccanismo … era il meccanismo, appunto, della disperazione (pp. 60-61).
According to our reading, the meccanismo segreto e rigoroso is set in motion by avijjā and taṇhā. The craving for pleasure is, as we have noted, one of the manifestations of taṇhā, as tenacious as the will-to-live: it motivates all worldly actions and aspirations. The most concrete example of the pervasive craving for existence and its continuance is the sex drive, and that is why it is the most convenient vehicle for our author’s stated purpose. Sex exerts more control over us than we exert over it: as Dino muses, “ammirai la forza della natura che, per cosí dire, mi faceva desiderare senza vero desiderio” (p. 166). In the final scene of Chapter 1, Moravia links desire, excitement and their subsequent appeasement with satiety, dissatisfaction, boredom—and ultimately, a sense of helplessness before this “meccanismo segreto e rigoroso”. Dino admits that he acts not out of deliberation but desperation : “La mia disperazione, tuttavia, prese una direzione inattesa.” He cares nothing for Rita, he knows full well that she is not the solution to his suffering, yet he continues the flirtations until their anticipated conclusion: an orgasm which yields as much repugnance as pleasure, as much disappointment as relief; in sum, one which can best be described as boring.
We must keep this in mind as we read Chapter 2. Despite the apparently abrupt change of venue and subject matter, it is an examination of the same mechanism at work: but in this chapter, as we shall see, its operation becomes compounded.
Balestrieri is evidently another father figure for Dino: both the voyager and the seducer attempt to live life to the full through a variety of experiences, yet find that their lust for life leads only to death. In them, and later in Dino, this self-destructive desire finds expression in the relationship with Cecilia, or “la realtà” as she is later called.xvi Dino is well aware of Balestrieri’s fatal attraction, but at the same time he does not see it for what it is: “Nella nebbia della noia, io avevo intravveduto la ragazza e Balestrieri; ma senza annettere loro alcuna importanza, e, comunque, distraendomi continuamente da loro”. Moreover, as we shall see, all of his insights, all of his deductions, are to be “knowingly unlearned”. For example, on page 101, Dino is struck by the fact that Balestrieri appears to have stridden blindly to his death with his eyes open:
Ma perché allora non l’aveva respinta dal momento che aveva sentito fin da principio che avrebbe dovuto farlo? In altri termini, che cosa aveva portato Balestrieri ad accettare un destino, di cui, a quanto pareva, era stato, sia pure in maniera oscura, consapevole? … Possibile che non ci fosse alcuna differenza tra un destino accettato in stato di incoscienza e un altro vissuto con lucida consapevolezza?
The solution to Dino’s perplexity is this: undoubtedly Balestrieri foresees his tragic destiny, but he does not apply this insight from moment to moment. Each encounter with Cecilia, “la sua droga”, exacerbates his dependence on the pleasure he derives from her; every yielding hastens his demise. He proceeds this way, even while understanding on an abstract level the price to be paid. Thus the need to legitimise his indulgence, and in order to do so his knowledge must be obscured by a deliberate, if “unconscious” act of self-deception. As Svevo’s Zeno Corsini must, in order to satisfy this present craving, smoke this cigarette as if he did not already know the consequences of his addiction, so Balestrieri must suspend his awareness in order to continue his hazardous relationship with Cecilia. Although the doctor says, “Se quest’uomo si fosse reso conto che alla sua età certe cose non si fanno, sarebbe ancora vivo”, it is clear that Balestrieri knew—but did not want to know—what he was doing. Avijjā, therefore, is a denial of knowledge in order to perpetuate indulgence, or what we may call “ignorance squared”.
But the spiral, or more accurately the vortex of ignorance does not stop there, as we find at the close of Chapter 2, when Dino meets Cecilia at Balestrieri’s studio. At the end of his interrogations, he feels “uno sconcertante sentimeno di affascinata attrazione come se la storia di Balestrieri mi riguardasse e il destino del vecchio pittore fosse collegato col mio” (p. 101). Very shortly we see why. After explaining in detail to Cecilia why it is impossible that they should become lovers, why he cannot have a rapport with anything, not even the water glass on the table, after sending her away, he “accidentally /on purpose” invites her back into the studio.xvii Despite all the information obtained on Balestrieri and his undoing, Dino is determined, in the broadest sense of the word, to follow in his “father’s” footsteps and to share every bit of his suffering. This is ignorance cubed.
In order to make sense of La noia we must understand why these two characters are so heedless in confrontation with reality (Cecilia) and why they persist in bringing about their own perdition. How does Cecilia come to dominate the lives of Balestrieri and Dino, the former a Don Juan and the latter a Roquetin who should be immune to her advances? Dino himself remarks to her: “Dopo quello che mi avevi detto dei tuoi rapporti con Balestrieri, immaginavo che tu fossi una donna terribile, di quelle che possono rovinare un uomo. Invece mi sembri una ragazza molto normale” (p. 115).
Nevertheless, from a male standpoint of desire Cecilia represents the fantasy of the virgin seductress; a formidable, almost irresistible Lolita-Linda Lovelace.xviii She is as insistent before sex as she is submissive afterwards. At the appointed hour she arrives each day, makes love two or three times, and then departs. This is all the more remarkable since, as Dino confesses, he is not good-looking, having gone prematurely bald; he lives in a dingy apartment, wears shabby clothes, and drives a decrepit car; he is neither romantic nor charming: yet all this notwithstanding, Cecilia yields herself without asking for anything in return. He does not have to be faithful, to marry her, or even take her to a restaurant. This absence of any demands, with the exception of pleasure, makes Cecilia especially seductive. As Francesco Alberoni observes, “il personaggio femminile più erotico è quello che non pone problemi, responsabilità, la donna-oca, che non capisce neppure la sua forza seduttiva e che non ricorda. Adesso sappiamo che l’uomo, proprio mentre faceva quella fantasia, conosceva la pesantezza emotiva del reale.”xix As a nymphet of few words, she evokes in Dino the male fantasy of sex as a refuge from care and responsibility, from anxiety and consternation, for during their lovemaking he embarks on a “vagabondaggio felice” into a realm where his awareness is suspended. Consequently, for Dino Cecilia can represent both reality and an escape from reality.
So although Dino may at times feel frustrated in his attempts at conversation, he admits on page 175: “Io mi ero contentato di queste informazioni … poiché quel che mi importava soprattutto era che venisse ogni giorno allo studio e facesse l’amore con me.” Balestrieri and Dino appear to have what every man wants: a young, insatiable lover whose only demands are sexual. There are no barriers to continual indulgence: instead of an isolated occurrence, an occasional relief from work and worry, pleasure is the norm. And so, to continue our imagery, the fantasy has been squared. But according to this fantasy, sex is always pleasurable, always satisfying. There is never a point of satiety, never a lapse of desire; if there were, then the entire self-contained world would collapse. But this is exactly what happens. After a brief period, what seems like an idyllic arrangement of pleasure-on-demand reveals itself to be subject to dukkha, just like everything else. Sex is merely a divertimento, which in terms of the Prologue is another form of boredom:
Intanto, però, mi accorgevo che cominciavo ad annoiarmi con Cecilia, ossia a sentirmi di nuovo nella condizione di estraneità e di distacco … Ma come ho già detto altrove, non si trattava di noia nel senso attribuito normalmente a questa parola. In realtà non era Cecilia che era noiosa, ero io che mi annoiavo, pur riconoscendo in cuor mio che avrei potuto benissimo non annoiarmi se, per qualche miracolo, fossi riuscito a rendere piú reale il mio rapporto con lei (pp. 116-117, italics mine).
Furthermore, the boredom that Dino suffers leads him to reflect on the disagreeable aspects of intercourse itself: “ma accoppiarsi mi sembrava, invece, una sforzatura stravagante per la quale il corpo umano non era fatto e alla quale non poteva adattarsi senza sforzo e fatica”. Moravia goes out of his way to probe “realistically” some of its repugnant aspects even as he depicts the craving for it. This is because while sex may be awkward and embarrassing, it is nevertheless “cleansed” in our consciousness: we neglect its not-so-pretty aspects so that we can retain the ideal of unmitigated satisfaction. Hence, neither Dino’s revulsion towards copulation nor his boredom with Cecilia affects his routine:
Da questa sensazione dell’assurdità del rapporto fisico, a quella dell’assurdità di Cecilia medesima, non c’era che un passo. Cosí la noia, al solito, distruggeva dapprima il mio rapporto con le cose e poi le cose stesse, vanificandole e rendendole incomprensibili. Ma il fatto nuovo, questa volta, era che di fronte a Cecilia ridotta ad oggetto assurdo, la noia, forse a causa dell’abitudine sessuale che avevo contratto e che non ritenevo, almeno per ora, di dovere interrompere, non si limitava a ispirarmi freddezza e indifferenza bensí oltrepassava questi sentimenti o meglio questa mancanza di sentimenti e si trasformava in crudeltà (p. 118, italics mine).
From the Buddhist standpoint, it is no surprise that Dino should pass from boredom to cruelty: for boredom is considered, in its philosophy, to be a symptom of ill-will. Since the puthujjana conceives of reality according to his “piani e programmi”, he naturally thinks that it should always fulfil his expectations, and when it does not, he becomes irritable. When the water-glass no longer serves Dino’s purposes, he feels a violent urge to smash it to pieces, and he develops “un odio ossessivo” for his telephone when numerous calls fail to confirm his suspicions of Cecilia’s infidelity. Yet what is more relevant to our discussion of avijjā is the phrase I have italicised. In a Ciceronian manner Dino has hidden his craving and duplicity in the middle of a long sentence: that is, he is in no hurry to give up his daily habit of sex despite the boredom and repugnance that accompany it. By the curious logic of avijjā he continues his indulgence whilst at the same time disparaging the means whereby it is achieved. This is only possible in a state of self-deception, in which he believes that he is in control of his relationship with Cecilia, in complete command of her and of himself. But he deceives himself into assuming that Cecilia (“ossia la realtà”) is always there “for him”:
Per quanto riguardava me, il fatto di poter disporre di Cecilia, ossia del suo corpo, quanto volevo, ogni volta che volevo, e in tutti i modi che volevo, dandomi l’illusione di possederla a fondo, ossia di avere con lei un rapporto tanto completo da renderne ormai inutile la continuazione, mi aveva convinto di non amarla. Analogamente ero convinto che Cecilia mi amasse perché la trovavo sempre cosí compiacente, cosí arrendevole, cosí docile (pp. 125-126, italics mine).
As Dino admits, whenever he thinks that he has established a possessive relationship with Cecilia, whenever he thinks that he is in control of his situation, he becomes bored and she is rendered absurd; on the other hand, when she eludes his grasp he is once again desirous, and she is once again significant. In terms of the novel, then, possession equals boredom, and boredom renders the possessed non-existent. As Paolo Milano observes: “Il vero tema del suo presente romanzo non è forse la ‘Noia’ … quanto il Possesso; possesso illusorio o effettivo di beni … possesso di un altro essere nel corpo e negli affetti, possesso di sé medesimi, insomma possesso della realtà.” xx
But the possession of reality can never take place, not even momentarily. As the novel so relentlessly demonstrates, Dino’s affliction arises from the illusion that there exists a stable centre, acting independently, capable of establishing a rapport with Cecilia. Reality cannot be his because just like the flower, his mind will not stand still for him. Thus, the very means by which he seeks to possess, by which he attempts to exert control over Cecilia (“I” and “mine”) are deceptions.xxi As soon as he comes into contact with reality, the meccanismo segreto of avijjā and taṇhā is activated and the “I” is no longer in charge. In sum, it is not just that we do not posses the person or object “out there”; the deeper truth is that we cannot even possess our “selves”:
The notion of ‘self-hood’ is fundamentally a notion of mastery over things … ‘I am master over this body, it is mine.’ Or else ‘I am master over my intentions, they are mine’ … I really do not wield power or possess mastery over [that] which I regard as my own. I cannot say to my Consciousness: ‘Let my Consciousness be thus, let my Consciousness be not thus’ … Thus this ‘self-hood’ which is adhered to is a deception, ever and again leading to betrayal, to disappointment.xxii
For this reason, in the Buddhist discourses the wise one must regard not just external objects, but every experience, thought or sensation in the following way: n’etaṁ mama, n’eso’haṁ asmi na m’eso attā: “This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.”
However, the ego normally refuses to accept its inner void, and therefore it is continually driven to search for something, someone, some experience—which is also void—to fill it. What it does not want to confront is the fact that no experience offers a safe haven from dukkha. Yet this is precisely what the puthujjana strives to attain. Thus, never in a state of complete satisfaction, Dino moves, like his father before him, from here to there and back again in frustration: reminiscent of the struggle with the skimpy blanket is his alternating ardour for Cecilia followed by boredom. Just as reality eludes him at the moment of possession, knowledge is forgotten at the moment of apprehension:
Un altro, di fronte alla crescente insufficienza del rapporto fisico, avrebbe cercato altrove la spiegazione di questa sete che aumentava nella stessa misura in cui veniva soddisfatta. Ma io ero ormai su una strada che sentivo al tempo stesso fatale e sbagliata; e cosí mi accanivo a ricercare nel possesso fisico che pur sapevo illusorio, quel possesso reale di cui avevo cosí disperato bisogno (pp. 228-229, italics mine).
Perhaps no other passage demonstrates so well how the meccanismo segreto is perpetuated. Not only does Dino’s thirst increase in proportion to its appeasement, but also the insufficiency of the means augments as well. The observation of all this, however, cannot compete on the visceral level with Dino’s immediate need to reduce his existential suffering, so in the frenzy to possess Cecilia it must be put aside. He admits that every attempt to do so via intercourse inevitably fails, yet in the very next sentence he entertains the notion that the miracle will come to pass next time: “ma se l’avessi presa di nuovo, chissà, forse sarei riuscito questa volta ad annullare la sensazione di non possederla” (p. 174). Of course he recognises the futility of what he is doing after sex, after an orgasm, but never before: “Naturalmente, subito dopo l’amplesso mi accorgevo di non averla posseduta. Ma era troppo tardi: Cecilia se ne andava, e io sapevo che il giorno dopo tutto sarebbe ricominciato: l’inutile sorveglianza, il possesso impossibile, la finale delusione” (p. 230). But this observation does not lead him to overcome the meccanismo segreto ; the reason is that he does not yet see any other way to relieve his anguish.xxiii
Dino appears to have stepped out of the vicious circle towards the end of Chapter 7. On page 239 he makes the connection between Cecilia and reality, between her elusiveness and his inability to paint. If any amount of introspection and clear-headed analysis could set him free, this should have done it: “il nesso era la smania di possedere e che tutte e due le operazioni naufragavano nell’impossibilità del possesso.” But again his insight has no effect at all on the workings of the mechanism. He thought that once he succeeded in extracting a confession from her, his desire would dissipate and he could find refuge in boredom. Yet as he acutely observes, “Tutto si può prevedere, fuorché il sentimento che ci potrà ispirare ciò che prevediamo”, apparently forgetting the difference between thoughts and feelings he had noted in the Prologue: “E dei sentimenti non è cosí facile liberarsi come delle idee: queste vanno e vengono, ma i sentimenti rimangono.”
As Chapter 7 concludes Dino appears to be back where he started. By now we should think that the protagonist would willingly renounce Cecilia if only out of frustration and exhaustion. Instead, he plunges into yet another vicious circle when he resorts to paying her for sex. Once more he believes that his ploy will free him from his obsession, but the only effect is to perpetuate another of Balestrieri’s mistakes. Consequently he, not Cecilia, becomes desperate for money:
E proprio perché lei non si lasciava possedere attraverso il denaro, io mi sentivo, adesso, spinto, irresistibilmente, a dargliene; cosí come, proprio perché non riuscivo a possederla attraverso l’atto sessuale, mi sentivo spinto a ripetere piú e piú volte l’atto medesimo. In realtà, cosí il denaro come l’atto sessuale mi davano per un istante l’illusione di possesso; e io non potevo piú fare a meno, ormai, di quell’istante, benché sapessi che era sempre regolarmente seguito da un sentimento di profonda delusione (p. 265, italics mine).
Finally, through marriage Dino contrives to achieve all of his objectives—possession, boredom and liberation. He invests everything in this ultimate strategy; so, when Cecilia declines his marriage proposal and refuses to call off her trip to Ponza, the only thing Dino can do is once more to hope for a miracle, because all so-called rational means have failed. When he drives Cecilia home, he can do nothing but revert to the irrational means which have also failed him: “Appena fu scomparsa … desideravo … riprenderla per la terza volta in quel giorno. Sapevo che era una pazzia, che riprendendola non l’avrei posseduta piú di quanto non la possedessi adesso, ossia niente affatto, che ciò che mi sfuggiva non era già il suo corpo … ma qualche cosa che niente aveva a che fare con il corpo” (p. 335).
He wants to have her for the third time that day, recalling the erotomania that had driven Balestrieri to his death: “E quando fosse tornata, io non avrei potuto fare a meno di ricominciare a correrle dietro, come Balestrieri, di cui, a quanto pareva, ero condannato a ricalcare la esperienza.” In fact, Dino has been repeating experience all along, just as his father had gone on voyage after voyage; just as his mother had bought more and more expensive things; and just as the old painter before him continually had sought to possess Cecilia via sex or money. All of these absurdities have occurred before his very eyes; he has noted them scrupulously and analysed them at length; yet he “thinks”—or rather avijjā deceives him into thinking—that by the very means which have always failed he can somehow succeed.
Therefore, even at the conclusion of Chapter 9, Dino has learned absolutely nothing from experience—either from others’ or from his own—because experience itself is the problem. Although he appreciates his desperate situation, no amount of frustration affects his behaviour, nothing gives him control over the meccanismo segreto. In the end, he is more ignorant than his father, his mother, or Balestrieri, because despite his advantage of having witnessed their ruin, he follows in their footsteps: “la mia follia era maggiore della sua; perché lui non aveva avuto alcun predecessore a fargli da specchio” (p. 290). As he finds himself incapable of stopping the diabolical mechanism, suicide appears to be the only way to end his misery, death the only exit from saṃsāra.
Has Moravia then given us the story of a fool, an effete, boring “inetto”? Not from a Buddhist perspective. Instead, up to this point it has been the diary of a puthujjana : an ordinary, average man confounded by dukkha—in sum, one just like ourselves. Moravia has understood that change is impossible and monotony inevitable as long as one is subject to the combined forces of ignorance and desire. In La noia we see how truly vicious is the vicious circle. As Bodhesako explains:
The vicious circle is the dilemma of indulgence: the more one takes the more one wants; the more one wants the more one takes. It is also the dilemma of self-deception … When there is self-deception it is because, in some fundamental sense, we desire to deceive ourselves; and when there is craving we cannot avoid the deception that is inherent in that very craving.xxiv
It is no wonder, he continues, that it is so difficult to free ourselves from those twin nemeses; they lurk in the very mechanisms that activate the self. Everything one does springs from a desire for satisfactory experience, although this is a contradiction in terms. Every experience carries dukkha with it: it cannot be truly fulfilling; the temporal cannot be eternal. Nevertheless, avijjā puts aside this knowledge and the memory of previous frustration, and we buy another object, go on another voyage, or make love for the third time.
The novel would be depressing indeed, truly existential, if it were not for the Epilogue, where Dino finds release from his suffering. This is, in brief, the difference between the doctrines of the existentialists and that of the Buddha. His Fourth Noble Truth describes the way to end the suffering brought about by the ignorance, craving, clinging and frustration that arise when an “I” intervenes to view a thing or an experience as “mine”, as occurring “for me”. The solution to the existential problem is to be found in yoniso manasakāra, a system of contemplation in which the mind is totally concentrated on an object and/or on the state of the mind itself. In this way the ego stops functioning, in that it no longer reacts towards its circumstances. With more and more refined attention to an object or an experience, the mind sees each thing “as it really is”, there for itself, without the urge to become “involved” with it. This is Dino’s liberating discovery when, as a result of his “suicide” at the end of Chapter 9, he is constrained to lie motionless, to stare for hours at the Cedar of Lebanon. Eventually, he arrives at a simple but startling understanding:
Non pensavo niente, mi domandavo soltanto quando e in che modo avevo riconosciuto la realtà dell’albero, ossia ne avevo riconosciuta l’esistenza come un oggetto che era diverso da me, non aveva rapporti con me e tuttavia c’era e non poteva essere ignorato (p. 344, italics mine).
First of all, it is a great revolution for Dino to stop his incessant cogitating, evaluating and imagining. Throughout the novel he has been preoccupied with every object’s relationship to himself. As long as he was bent on appropriating reality, i.e. acting upon it, he distorted every situation according to personal prejudice.xxv Furthermore, as long as his mind was engaged in its customary restlessness, he remained subjected to boredom. But now his total absorption puts an end to distress, because it comprehends the object without reference to a subject. The mind and what it contemplates remain separate, unadulterated by desire or aversion. Dino continues: “Evidentemente qualche cosa era avvenuto … qualche cosa che, in parole povere, si poteva definire come il crollo di un’ambizione insostenibile. Adesso contemplavo l’albero con un compiacimento inesauribile, come il sentirlo diverso e autonomo da me fosse stato ciò che mi faceva maggiore piacere” (italics mine).
The ambition which collapses is that of establishing a rapport between an “I” and reality. In the Prologue, whatever he encountered “failed” him, became absurd, a cause for disillusionment. The water-glass, the flower, even Cecilia soon became insufficient. But in the hospital there is a revolution: of the tree Dino asks absolutely nothing; it need not confirm its own existence or his. This is in distinct contrast to his earlier need to view reality solely in relation to himself: “finché, cioè, sono in grado di rappresentarmi con convinzione il bicchiere, mi sembrerà di avere con esso un rapporto qualsiasi, sufficiente a farmi credere alla sua esistenza e, in linea subordinata, anche alla mia” (p. 8). Rather, he finds this remarkable “inesauribile compiacimento” in contemplating the tree just as it stands. Dino has reached a different dimension.
After our insistence on the structural principle of dukkha, it may seem naïve on Dino’s part, yet another example of avijjā, to speak of an inexhaustible pleasure. What about all we have said about the insufficiency inherent in things? According to the Four Noble Truths, the removal of the elements which cause dukkha necessarily leads to sukha, happiness. Substitute yathābhūtaṁ-ñāṇadassanaṁ for avijjā and virāga (non-attachment) for taṇhā, and happiness is inevitable.xxvi
In this context the Mahā-Assapurasutta speaks of kāyaṁ samādhijena pītisukhena: “the body (filled with) the rapture and pleasure born of concentration”. While our “rapport with reality” is inevitably short-lived, there is no limit to the intensity of concentration on an object of meditation: the pleasure can truly appear inexhaustible. Thus, contentment is to be found in the knowing itself. In contemplation, the inherent anxiety of taṇhā ceases: there is no craving for an experience to be this way or that way. Instead of desire or aversion one experiences upekkhā, a state of non-attachment or indifference; but this is a positive reality in every sense, a truly satisfactory state unaffected by change wherever its locus, within or without. So, as Dino discovers, “Qualsiasi altro oggetto, come mi rendevo conto, mi avrebbe ispirato lo stesso genere di contemplazione, lo stesso sentimento di inesauribile compiacimento.” His contemplative mind resides in a state of ekaggatā, “one-pointedness”, which he could never have known before his “suicide”: “Ma non è facile, quando ci si annoia, pensare con continuità qualche cosa” (p. 70).
After some time he is able to take his meditation further; he finds that what applies to the tree applies to Cecilia, and from this we know that he has finally attained a state of equanimity. Obviously, one can more easily remain indifferent and aloof whilst gazing at a tree than when confronted by the image of a former lover. For this reason Buddhist meditation usually begins by focusing on a neutral object, a kammaṭṭhāna, which does not incite emotion. Thus, after Dino attains one-pointed concentration on the tree, he is eventually able to turn his mind towards Cecilia, to envision her at Ponza, even making love to Luciani, without any mental agitation, let alone anguish and jealousy. What earlier drove him to “suicide”—the thought of Cecilia beyond his grasp—is now a source of contentment. In a distinct Pirandellian echo, he sees the two figures “come in fondo ad un cannocchiale rovesciato … piccole e rimote”. As we recall from Pirandello’s short story “La tragedia di un personaggio”, the difference between anguish and tranquillity is a matter of the distance oneself from things and events:
Sí, ero contento che lei esistesse, laggiú nell’isola di Ponza, in una maniera che era la sua e che era diversa dalla mia e in contrasto con la mia, con un uomo che non ero io, lontano da me … E, insomma, io non volevo piú possederla bensí guardarla vivere, cosí com’era, cioè contemplarla, allo stesso modo che contemplavo l’albero … Questa contemplazione non avrebbe mai avuto fine appunto perché io non desideravo che finisse, cioè non desideravo che l’albero, o Cecilia, o qualsisasi altro oggetto al di fuori di me, mi annoiasse e di conseguenza cessasse per me di esistere.
As long as Dino could only conceive reality as “for him”, he was never content with Cecilia as she was, and he needed to hold onto her through sex, money or marriage. Now he has “renounced” Cecilia, but this renunciation does not mean that he feels any aversion towards her or that he wants to have nothing more to do with her. Rather, it means that he is no longer “concerned” with her; he no longer tries to appropriate her, or to have her “his” way. She, or the tree or any other object in the world, can exist without reference to a Dino at the centre of it. Thus, by means of a positive indifference to reality Dino loves Cecilia “senza piú”, arrests the mechanism avijjā and taṇhā and at last triumphs over boredom. La noia, therefore, far from being a relative failure, does in fact exemplify in a unique and forceful way Moravia’s chief preoccupation as a writer: “il rapporto dell’uomo con la realtà.”
M. John Stella, University of Western Australiaxxvii
i Quoted in Alberto Limentani, Alberto Moravia: tra esistenza e realtà (Venezia: 1962), p. 95 (emphasis mine).
ii Milano:Bompiani, 1962, p. 9, italics mine. Buddhism, unlike Western religions or even the other Oriental ones, denies the existence of a persistent self or soul.
iii Io e il mio tempo a cura di Nello Ajello (Padova: Edizioni Nord-Est, 1988), p. 86.
iv Dukkha and the other philosophical terms come from Pāli, the language in which the Buddhist discourses were transcribed.
v Quoted in Siciliano, “E’ l’ora del Buddho”, appendix to Alberto Moravia :vita, parole e idee di un romanziere (Milano: Bompiani, 1982), p. 248. Moravia here refers to the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Vinaya I, x; Saṃyuttanikāya LII, 420). Given these allusions, I believe we may apply oriental thought, especially Buddhism to Moravia’s works. For a Buddhist reading of Una cosa è una cosa, see my article “Indifference as a Positive Reality”, Forum Italicum Spring 1997.
vi La noia, page 7. All page references are to the Bompiani edition (Milano: 1960).
vii La romana (Milano: Bompiani, 1955), p. 142.
viii In the words of Ñāṇavīra Thera, “avijjā functions automatically, but conceals the fact from itself; avijjā is an automatically functioning blindness to its automatic functioning.” Clearing the Path (Colombo: Path Press, 1987), p. 488.
ix “On a gross level we have our specific cravings for this or that; but were they the only sort of craving that existed then we should soon enough be able to put an end to them by the simple expedient of gratification. But no, even … when we are most bored with the world’s diversions we find … that there is still a searching, a wanting. Indeed, without wanting there could not be that boredom.” Samanera Bodhesako, Change (Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons, 1991), p. 50
x sabbe saṅkhāra dukkhāti yadā paññāya passati/atha nibbindati dukkha, esa maggo visuddhiyā. In Pāli, nibbindati conveys not just “to become bored with” but also “to turn away from, abandon”.
xi As Krishnamurti explains, “the mind goes from boredom to interest to boredom again, till it is utterly weary; and these successive waves of interest and weariness are regarded as existence.” Commentaries on Living vol. II (Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1970), p. 22.
xii That exit from boredom, that miracle Dino anticipates, is possible according to Buddhism; however, the way out of dukkha cannot be found in a relationship with reality as we know it, but rather in a different dimension, one in which the subject withers, not the object.
xiii Despite his dependence on his mother, Dino is already sensitive to such Freudian imagery and has no inclination to dramatise it (p. 25). Moravia’s interpretation of Oedipus, given in L’attenzione (Milano: Bompiani, 1965, pp. 86-88), is relevant to our discussion. According to Francesco, “la tragedia di Edipo è invece quella di un’ignoranza volontaria, presuntuosa, impaurita ed empia, cioè della disattenzione”.
xiv Key to Natural Truth (Bangkok: Dhamma Study & Practice Group, 1988), p. 49.
xv I have enclosed the word “thought” in quotation marks because the impulse to elude the structural principle of dukkha precedes the act of thinking.
xvi Dominique Fernandez shows how the satyriasis of Cecilia’s lovers symbolises their contact with reality: “Le sexe, avant tout, est l’instrument du rapport au monde, il est ce qui permet à l’homme d’entrer en contact avec autrui et avec les choses… Le problème sexuel n’est jamais dissocié chez Moravia du problème du rapport au monde.” Le Roman italien et la crise de la conscience moderne (Paris: Grasset,1958), p. 60.
xvii This recalls his brief “unintentional” liason with Rita. On page 75 he notes the similarity between the two girls: “E’ una giovane donna dal volto saggio e occhialuto che ricorda molto quello di Rita.”
xviii She re-emerges in a short story from La cosa (Milano: Bompiani, 1983) “Il diavolo non può salvare il mondo” , where the devil takes on the form of a child-woman to obtain the soul of Gualtieri.
xix L’erotismo (Milano: Garzanti, 1986), p. 78.
xx From his article “Possesso e impazienza”, L’Espresso 11 dicembre 1960, p. 25 (italics mine).
xxi “So long as there is avijjā all things are inherently in subjection, they are appropriated, they are mine. All normal experience has this duality … but the ignorant worldling takes this at its face value. Thus this relationship between himself and the world is elaborated … showing different ramifications of the ego-world linkage.” Padmasiri de Silva, Twin Peaks (Singapore: Buddhist Research Society, 1992), p. 46.
xxii R. G. Wettimuny, The Buddha’s Teaching: Its Essential Meaning (Colombo: Gunasena, 1969), pp. 43-44. As we read in the Dhammapada, 62: puttā m’atthi dhanam m’atthi iti bālo vihaññati/attā hi attano natthi, kuto puttā kuto dhanam. “The fool is confounded, saying: ‘These sons are mine, this wealth is mine’. He does not even possess his own self, much less his sons, much less his wealth.”
xxiii As we read in the Saṁyuttanikāya IV, vedanāsaṁyutta, pathamasagātha-vagga 6: so dukkhāya vedanāya puṭho samāno kāmasukham abhinandati. taṁ kissa hetu. na hi … pajānāti assutavā puthujjano aññatrā kāmasukhā dukkhāya vedanāya nissaranaṁ. “The puthujjana, affected by unpleasurable feeling, delights in sensual pleasure. And why? He does not know any escape from unpleasurable feeling other than sensual pleasure”.
xxiv Bodhesako, pp. 53-54.
xxv “The Moravian view of reality—or as he calls it, his ideology—leads not to action but to contemplation, which is direct and hermetic communication with objective reality. In contemplation one discovers the authentic rapport with reality, as Dino does when he contemplates the tree: he has wanted to possess things, but, as Moravia says, ‘possession can be attained perhaps only … through contemplation of the object’.” Louis Kibler, “The Reality and Realism of Alberto Moravia”, Italian Quarterly 17, Summer 1973, p. 13.
xxvi As in the Mahāsaḷyatanakasutta (Majjhimanikāya 149): rūpe jānaṁ passaṁ yathābhūtaṁ … na sārajjati rūpesu … tassa asārattassa asaṁyuttassa asammūḷhassa … viharato … taṇhā c’assa … pahīyati. tassa kāyikā pi darathā pahīyanti, cetasikā pi darathā pahīyanti, kāyikā pi santāpā pahīyanti, cetasikā pi santāpā pahīyanti, kāyikā pi pariḷāhā pahīyanti, cetasikā pi pariḷāhā pahīyanti. so kāyasukhaṁ pi ceto-sukhaṁ pi patisaṁ-vedeti. “Knowing and seeing external forms as they really are … one is not attached to them. When … craving ceases, bodily pains cease, mental afflictions and worries cease … and one is filled with physical and mental happiness.”
xxvii This research was funded by an OPRS grant of the Australian government.