Exploring existentialism in Alberto Moravia’s Contempt, before Albert Camus & Jean-Paul Sartre
Alberto Moravia writes about existentialism through his characters. In fact, he was, in many ways, even celebrated as the founder of the literary existentialist movement, before Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
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In Moravia’s Contempt, existentialism embodies many forms. The characters of Moravia are not religious, they believe in no afterlife, and no universal order or meaning in the universe.
Simply put, the characters are imitations of man and woman, absurd and indifferent, mimicking the absurdity and indifference of the world they are eternally doomed to be a part of.
The realization of which compels a person to crack from that mold of camouflage and take responsibility for oneself. To act and create one’s life without another’s interference or influence. To deviate away from the preconceived pillars of human nature is to take control of your own destiny.
The existential protagonist in Contempt feels rejected and alienated from people and reality. His struggle to rectify that and humanize his humanness with other people and his reality makes up the subject matter of the story.
The genius of Alberto Moravia lies in creating the ideal circumstances that best define that inner struggle of the protagonist.
Molteni (the protagonist) struggles to rescue his marriage from indifference, ennui, and neglect. From this inquiry stems other existential struggles: the role of money and sex as means of connection in a modern marriage.
The role of money
Molteni equates the love he harbors for his wife with the money he spends on paying off the installments of the house he buys for her. He excuses working as a screenwriter for films he has no interest or passion in because it pays the bills that supposedly keep his wife happy and loved by him.
The role of money here provides external validation and a deceptive sense of security between Molteni and his wife. As Molteni clings desperately to this external facade, his wife grows more and more distant.
In consequence, the emptiness that Molteni feels out of seeking material pursuits, which in return is simply a futile attempt, a hollow token of love, is Moravia’s way of exhibiting the absurdity of human nature. How we cling to the physical and material world because we are so afraid of looking within.
Can physical appearances and wealth pacify misery and alienation?
When you consider these outward reflections, the things you own mimic the loneliness and strangeness of your inner thoughts and feelings. That’s when they start to dissolve into each other, these objects then have no other purpose than to remind you of your growing contempt and disconnectedness from reality.
We hope to feel more connected with others through the things we own. Using the lens of Molteni’s material illusion, Moravia characterizes that hope as false and meaningless.
The role of sex
The sexual relationship between Molteni and his wife is a sharp tool that Moravia uses to cut through the existential core of the story.
According to Molteni, the act of possessing a woman in bed, whether it be sexual or emotional, is a necessry proof of a healthy marriage. And his wife’s indifferent and withdrawn reactions make Molteni’s life bleaker and more miserable.
One thing that gives momentum to the story is the fact that Molteni harbors a Freudian sense of attachment to his wife. And so the sexual relationship caters to pacifying something suppressed within Molteni’s relationship with his mother: he wants to believe that he is entitled to his wife’s loyalty and submission in the face of romance. And because she refuses to give him what he wants, he then identifies her as a prostitute.
His “abnormal” viewpoint of sex as a means to overcome the alienation and disconnection he feels with his life (and wife) adds fuel to the fire. Leaving him more stranded and strangled than before in the face of reality.
Sex is an important tangent in a modern love story. And in this story, sex plays a very revealing role in illuminating the absurdity of the world.