Part 4 (1/2)

Black Milk Elif Shafak 93750K 2022-07-22


I find myself nodding heartily, though the more she speaks, the more lost I am becoming.

”Unfortunately too many lives are crushed in a monotonous routine. Such a pity! One must actually aim to be special. We have to become immortal while we are still alive. You have to write better novels and develop your skill. 'You need to work continually day and night, to read ceaselessly, to study, to exercise your will. . . . Each hour is precious.'”

”Was that Chekhov again?” I ask suspiciously.

”It was Anton Pavlovich Chekhov,” she says with a frown, and to hammer home the point, she repeats his name in Russian. ”HTOH .”

”Right.” I sigh.

”Look, I made a calculation: If you write a new novel every year for the next ten years, give a lecture every month, attend all the major literary festivals in Europe and tour the world, then in eight years and two months you'll have reached new heights in your career.”

”Oh, give me a break, will you?” I say, exasperated. ”Do you think literature is a horse race? Do you think I am a machine?”

”What is wrong with that?” she says nonchalantly. ”Better to be a machine than a vegetable! Instead of living like a sprig of parsley, pa.s.sionless and lifeless, better to live with the dash and zest of a working machine.”

”And what about motherhood?”

”Motherhood . . . motherhood . . .” she says, glowering, as if the word has left a bad taste in her mouth. ”Better leave motherhood to women who are born to be mothers. We both know you are not like that. Motherhood would upset all of my future plans. Promise me. Say you won't do it!”

I look into the horizon, longing to be somewhere else. In the ensuing silence Miss Ambitious Chekhovian slowly gets up, walks to her bag and fishes out a piece of paper.

”What is this?” I ask when she holds it out to me.

”It is an address,” says Miss Ambitious Chekhovian. ”The address of an excellent gynecologist. Guess what! I already got you an appointment. The doctor is expecting you at six-thirty on Tuesday.”

”But, why?”

Miss Ambitious Chekhovian's eyes light up as her voice gets an eerie softness: ”Because we want to solve this problem once and for all. This operation will do away with all of the existential questions that have been messing with your mind. I've decided to have you sterilized.”

”What am I, a stray cat!?” I say, flus.h.i.+ng scarlet with rage.

Dissatisfied, she shrugs and turns around. ”It is up to you.”

I know I should mind my temper but I can't. Still grumbling, I leave her to her veterinary campaign and head up north.

There, behind an ornamented iron door, in a city as bustling with ideas as New York, lives Miss Highbrowed Cynic. Her windows are covered with burgundy velvet curtains and flimsy cobwebs, her walls with posters of Che Guevara and Marlon Brando.

She wears slovenly hippie dresses that reach the floor and mirror-threaded Indian vests. She wraps bright foulards around her neck and wears bangle bracelets of every color up to her elbows. When she feels like it, she goes to get a tattoo or another piercing. Depending on the day, she either leaves her shoulder-length hair loose or puts it up in a haphazard bun. She does raja yoga and advanced Reiki. All the acupuncture she's received has yet to help her quit smoking. If she isn't smoking a cigarette or a cigarillo, she chews tobacco.

Her handbags are cluttered sacks, where she fits in several books, notebooks and all sorts of knickknacks. She usually doesn't wear makeup, not because she is against it but because when she puts a mascara or lipstick in her handbag, she can never find it again.

Miss Highbrowed Cynic is following an alternative diet nowadays. She has a plate of organic spinach, organic zucchini and some kind of mixed vegetables with saffron in front of her. She is a staunch vegetarian on the verge of turning vegan. It has been years since she last ate meat. Or chicken. Or fish. She claims that when we consume an animal, we also consume their fear of death. Apparently that is the reason we get sick. Instead, we are meant to eat peaceful leafy greens, such as spinach, lettuce, kale, arugula . . .

”h.e.l.lo, Miss Highbrowed Cynic,” I say.

”Peace, Sister,” she says, waving her hand nonchalantly.

”I need to pick your brain on an important matter,” I say.

”Well, you came to the right place. I am brains.”

”Okay, what is your opinion about motherhood?”

”What is the use of asking rhetorical questions when it is a well-known fact that everyone hears only what they want to hear,” she says. ”Wittgenstein wrote about the limits of language for a reason. You ought to read the Tractatus.”

”I don't have time to read the Tractatus,” I say. ”Ms. Agaoglu is still in the living room waiting for an answer. You've got to help me now.”

”Well, then, I urge you to think about the word envy.”

”Come again?”

”Envy is not a simple emotion, mind you, but a deep philosophical dilemma. It is so important, in fact, that it shapes world history. Jean-Paul Sartre said all sorts of racism and xenophobia stem from envy.”

”I am afraid I don't get a word of what you are saying. Could you please speak more plainly?”

”All right, let me put it in simple terms: The gra.s.s is always greener on the other side.”

”Which means?”

”It means if you have a baby, you will always be envious of women who don't have children and focus fully on their careers. If you choose to focus on your career, however, you will always envy women who have kids. Whichever path you choose, your mind will be obsessed with the option you have discarded.”

”Is there no way out of this dilemma?” I ask.

She shakes her head desolately. ”Envy lies at the root of our existential angst. Look at the history of mankind, all the wars and destruction. Do you know what they said when World War I broke out? The war that will end all wars! Of course that is not what happened. The wars didn't end because there is no equality and no justice. Instead we have an imbalance of power and income, ethnic and religious clashes. . . . All of this is bound to generate new conflicts.”

I take a long, deep breath. ”You are making me depressed.”

”You ought to be depressed,” she says, wagging a finger in my face. ”To live means to be saddled with melancholy. It is no coincidence that Paul Klee painted the Angel of History so lonely and hopeless. Remember the look on the face of Angelus Novus. I highly recommend that you read Walter Benjamin on . . .”

”You are making me soooo depressed,” I interject.

She stares at me as if seeing me for the first time. ”Oh, I see. In the age of Internet and multimedia, no one has the time or patience for in-depth knowledge anymore. All right, I will cut to the chase.”


”My point is, whichever woman you will grow into, you will wish to be the Other. According to the great French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the essence of ethics is the point where you come face-to-face with the Other. Of course, from a phenomenological stance, we could speak of the 'other' inside the 'I.'”

”Ugh, hm!” I say.

”Read Heidegger to see how a human being, any human being, cannot be taken into account unless seen as an existent among the things surrounding him, the key to all existence being Dasein, which is being-in-the-world.” She widens her dark green eyes at me. ”Therefore, my answer to your ba.n.a.l question is as follows: It doesn't really matter.”

”What do you mean?” I say, trying to keep frustration from my voice.

”Whether you don't have children or you have half a dozen of them, it is all the same,” she says with customary a.s.surance. ”In the end, it all boils down to the envy of the Other, and to deep existential dissatisfaction. Humans do not know how to be satisfied. Like Cioran said, we are all sentenced to fall inside ourselves and be miserable.”

A freezing wind blows in through an open window. The candle in my hand flickers sadly and I s.h.i.+ver. Miss Highbrowed Cynic's voice, stiff with relish and conviction, scratches my ears. I begin to walk away from her.