Title: Passing Ceremony.
Author: Helen Weinzweig.
Publication Date: 1973.
Summary: In this novel, a wedding reception in the posh Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto becomes a gothic dream in which the bride, groom, family, and guests struggle with private obsessions, guilty fantasies of sex and power, and the constant failure of love. The bride is uninterested, the groom a closeted, broken-hearted homosexual, the father-of-the-bride a convict on the run, and there is generally something ambiguous about everyone else at the surreal and strangely moving wedding.
My rating: 8/10
♥ As a couple, the Weinzweigs were an astounding cultural force, although their long marriage sometimes had a Homeric quality, with many a skirmish and epic jealousies, rages, and comings and goings. They both helped form nationalist organizations—the Canadian Music Centre, the Writers' Union—and their house on Manor Road because a mecca for Toronto's creative class, a landmark in the city's transition from butter tarts and Orange Parades to the bustling, creative, sizzling, maddeningly overpriced metropolis it has now become.
♥ "One of the drawbacks of starting when you're older is you know what good writing is, and you know you can't do it," [Weinzweig] told the Globe in 1990. But she could do it.
♥ I am told that both of Helen's books are staples of women's studies courses now, and I'd like to know how today's female (and male) readers compute the experience of Helen's women as they survive the surreal passing ceremonies offered by the patriarchy and move on out and get a life.
In reading Passing Ceremony again, after all these years, I enjoyed the satire and absurdity, and the sure-footed writing that got my attention early on—but I am now also moved by the author's sympathy for her lost tribe, well-off materially but stalked by uncertainty, failure, sexual anxiety, aging, loneliness, illness. They may be nasty to one another, but they are mortally scared.
~~from Introduction by James Polk.
♥ ...This chapel is damp and makes me shiver. It smells of green mould despite the flowers, despite her perfume. She leans against me like you did when we stood like this many deaths ago. See what you missed Maggie by killing yourself: your brother now takes a woman to be my lawful wedded: a marriage is still possible: you did not wait to find out what is possible: if you could hear me now: with this ring I thee wed and I will not fail you in sickness and in health as all the others did. Abandoned yet haunted by all of you, every night a nightmare of vanished faces, I take her, take thee, a small life, to have and to hold against my impossible longing. The minister says I may kiss your dry lips...
♥ —Pure loves don't need church weddings. They can have spiritual intercourse anytime, anywhere. They could write each other long letters.
—For that matter no one needs a license to love.
—Love is not enough.
—Nothing is enough.
—You can't have everything.
—Then they did the right thing.
♥ Even as you followed the guiding white line, you were overcome with fear, as on those long night-flights in the war. You felt a compulsion as you did then to keep going, past the target, head out for nowhere and never return. Just the same, you continued on course, today, as always, you did what was expected of you: made all the right decisions, followed the signs, took the correct turns and landed where you were supposed to. So here you are.
♥ You are all alone now. Your head, without support, gets lighter and lighter, you feel dizzy. You sit up. You don't feel well: you might as well go home right after the ceremony, forget the reception, go back to your house, where, if nothing else, there is the safety of indifference.
♥ But which summer was with her? And whose blue eyes? There is no more recall. You are alone in your imagination, waiting.
♥ But not alone, dear god, not by myself. And if I must lie to Marylou, it must not be for nothing. And should you suspect another woman, Marylou, then you can add martyrdom to your other virtues. Isn't that the only jewel missing from your crown?
♥ Bride and groom present happy expressions. They are being photographed by someone facing them at the end of the passage. The flash bulbs pop. One of the pictures will be chosen by the bride for its verity. Their faces, his and hers, will be framed and hung on her mother's wall; taken off her father's wall in Mexico by Raquel; and will hang on their bedroom wall for a period of time at present unknown.
♥ Someone is here who will want to kill herself for love. For love of me. She longs to be enslaved. I shall oblige. I shall be her master. I must be on the qui vive, on the alert, for the signs. She will be neither young nor old. Suicide is a temptation only in the midst of life, not when one is beginning the game of love, nor when it is too late. She will be exuberant or melancholy: there is no compromise with these women. She will talk too much or not at all; her eyes will search but remain empty; she will drink steadily, yet stay sober.
Someone is here who will threaten to slit her wrists or take all the pills or throw herself across subway tracks. I shall dissuade her with kisses. She may have had promises before, but not from me. They will appear different. They always do. Once she trusts me, it will take great skill to get her to the edge of despair without breaking any promises. Timing is of the essence: I must be there to stop her at that final, that exquisite, moment between life and death. I shall rescue her. The thought excites me. I feel a passion greater than I have ever known. Each time I will bring her back to life with my sex. Alive, but in a state of shock, pale, faint, indifferent to what I do with her, I shall take her up tenderly, lay her down gently, and let her have it. She who was at death's door an hour ago, will be screaming with ecstatic pain, wishing she could enter oblivion with my cock inside her.
From then on, I shall drive her to the brink. Again and again. Give, withhold. Declare, deny. Cajole, threaten. Ignore, punish.
But what if I... should... what if I get trapped... nothing is impossible... what if it is she who is out to... and what if I am unable to...
♥ Fortunately, the groom behaves as one would expect. He has a handshake that reaches out, grips, reassures and releases with decent impersonality.
♥ I make no move he stands there smiling easily that smile I hate unctuous and arrogant yet I am drawn to it drawn to him as to a priest's promise... I guard myself... whatever he wants I will deny it to him but he continues to smile and the smile extends to his eyes I look into his big dark eyes fall into them but cannot touch bottom... suddenly I am afraid he will leave me... terror returns... come in, come in, I urge...
♥ Pity. Delayed. Roland knows pity. For the first and only time, he freely hugs her to him. And kisses the top of her head. She rests against his chest. Now they can say farewell, decently, like strangers.
♥ Someone is here who has been longing for the perfect lover. She has had four lovers, none perfect. No one has ever really roused her. She will confess that at no time did she feel anything (averting her eyes) down there. Surely... I suggest. No, nothing, she whispers modestly; but, compelled to explain, she tells me how her mind wanders.
—At the most critical moments I mentally plan the dinner, or decide to send a red dress to the cleaners or hold a conversation with my sister.
She searches my eyes, do I understand. Of course... and I tell her of my own loneliness.
—Sundays are the worst, I reveal.
—Then what do you do?
—Sometimes I stay in bed all day.
Conversation is important to these women. That's what they rub themselves up against. They want their minds fucked first.
..She's hooked. And so it goes. It could be ice-fishing. One never knows. One must be prepared. That is the advantage of maturity. Young men don't know that you must patiently deflower their psyche.
♥ Two forms on the frozen ground. Shivering, clutching, gasping. Some satisfaction. His. Too cold to continue anything.
♥ The old lady has been told that the noise is caused by plumbers fixing the kitchen sink. And since time for her is no more, having slipped into infinity shortly after her eightieth birthday, she does not realize that the daily noise of walls crashing, hammers driving, drills screaming, is not of to-day, nor yesterday, but the day before that, and the weeks and months prior to yesterday. Each day dawns automatically, into which she slips with no more awareness than a drugged fish into waster. Just as well. She has hallucinations about being mistress of a mansion, of possessing furs and jewels. If she knew her helplessness she would discontinue the habit of waking up. For her, the dangers of the day are dimmed by cataracts. It is only at night that the demons are seen clearly.
♥ Let me tell you Maggie what you achieved by killing yourself... nothing... you killed yourself for nothing for no good reason... did you love him that much or hate him that much what did you have in mind beside your hopeless misery... that Larry would what suffer remorse?...your death gave him a headache he caught cold at the funeral ran a fever... Aileen nursed him she came with her little boy and stayed... Larry who wanted no children an impoverished painter no responsibilities is a family man now receives the boy's adoration and stirs it into his coffee... for the sake of your tormented spirit and for mine I paid a visit your surrogate ghost what did I hope to accomplish... obtain a message for you that your dearth brought a revelation an illumination a love after death...?
Arrived without warning your brother my appearance no surprise not a cloud over the eyes his jesus-mask never cracked he is haunted by nothing... showed me big canvases spoke of exhibitions sales good prices not like the old days... Aileen sat where you used to sit waiting like you for a look... the boy at his feet toy cars on a new rug... so little was asked of you Maggie just to blend into the scenery it seemed so simple... why dear god was it so impossible that you chose to...
Larry to the door it was May beautiful night he said looking up at the stars deep breaths the wind was fresh from the river it was all his the earth the sky the very air... you should have lived has made no difference except to me all alone now... we might have shared a world you and I... no Larrys no Leons no more begging...
♥ Why is there no music at this wedding, no songs, no laughter. No one appears happy. There is only noise, like cats at night. At this precise instant, Raquel comprehends her husband's strange reaction to the nocturnal screams. The entire pueblo laughs at the Inglese's habit of running out in his pyjamas in the middle of the night to chase the cats. Those animal shrieks must frighten him just like the shrieking she hears right now.
♥ A hand of the past at his throat. Spence runs a finger around his collar. Loosen the tie that's better.
♥ —..Still, couldn't you, just this once, forget you saw...
—I have my orders.
—Are you going to...
—Later, not here.
—The poor girl. Even her wedding becomes a trap...
—That's what they say about weddings.
♥ "Anthony Hoffman," he will say, "you are under arrest for..." For what? For cowardice possibly. Then he will place handcuffs on my wrists. That moment when the handcuffs click, that moment when I am being rendered helpless, when my life no longer belongs to me, that moment is so exquisite that even in imagination I am overcome with ecstasy. Then I must run to the bathroom where I have an orgasm. Sometimes, when she is not busy, Edie helps me by pretending she is the arresting officer. She has that authoritative manner, offensive to some people, which I admire. So it is not too difficult, in the dark of our bedroom, for me to pretend she is my nemesis. She enters wearing a belted raincoat, speak the magic words, slips the handcuffs on and leads me away to a corner of the room. The key to the handcuffs is kept in the bathroom, on a shelf of the medicine cabinet.
Edie has done her best for me. She has turned this old house into a prison. When I try to make a break for it, she apprehends me every time. What a relief.
..I have tried to explain this to my grandmother that there is no comfort in freedom; that one's endless decisions lead to endless mistakes; that thieves and murderers lurk everywhere. I have tried to make my grandmother realize how well off she is, in the safety of her own room, having all her needs attended to by Edie and me, instead of by strangers in an institution. Yet, unlike them, we have warmth and bright lights and good food and exciting parties. None of which costs us a penny, as in prison, with the clients paying for all of it. One could say we have the best of both worlds.
♥ She starts to cry. If you had only believed me, if you had only accepted my denials, if you had only ignored my lies, we might have gotten at the truth with time...
♥ How can I forgive you for what I will never know again. On your knees you promised. Those endless kisses. I was drugged like any addict. Enveloped in your languor. Aware of nothing but your whispers in the night. Now I'm thrust into the light and my eyes hurt form the glare. I do not wish your happiness. After all. It suits me to appear drunk.
♥ The other days bode no good. After all, what can I expect of a Monday that smells of washing; or a Wednesday, when one must eat the last of the leftovers; and Friday with its uneasy pall, when I can hardly wait to leave work early in anticipation of an eventful week-end. Which brings me to Sunday, to a veritable bonus of choices. On that day I can, with a clear conscience, make irrevocable decisions: whether to stay or go, whether to lie idly about the house or take up a paint brush. This is the open-ended day of total freedom. However, like all exercise of free will, the Sunday decision is fraught with danger. In these times of changing values, when all guide posts are rotted, when all restrictions on decent behaviour are flouted, one must find one's won modus vivendi. On Sunday one must stand up and be counted.
♥ It is important that she have the full support of all her friends, otherwise a poltergeist of hypocrisy would hover around the wedding presents. Not that I am superstitious, but I do feel that gifts begrudgingly given are dangerous to the recipient.
♥ On a day like this let us stop and reflect upon the mystical union of a man and a woman. I well recall when I got married the war was still on. Although I was not in uniform, I did my duty. I kept physically fit, exercising as diligently as any soldier. In those days there was a shortage of lawyers, but I turned away no one from my office door. I tried in my own humble way to balance the scales of justice. I didn't seek gain yet wealth came. In time, I was persuaded to run for public office. I sacrificed my private life in order to swim with the political tide. Simple pleasures had to be renounced. My family is understanding and write me regularly wherever they happen to be. I always keep in touch. My secretary answers every letter at once. I may be busy, but I am not heartless. It is my civic duty to be available to the citizenry of this city without favor. Tonight, for instance, as much as I would like to relax and renew friendships, I must leave in a few minutes. I am expected at a Kiwanis dinner.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to join me in a toast to the bride.
♥ "..We begin where we are, I always say. Forgive and forget. Right?"
"I wish it were that simple. Who does the forgiving? And forget what? I have no control over my memory. I have no idea why I forget some things and remember others. The importance of the event has no bearing on whether it will be recalled. What is the significance of jam sandwiches eaten in the back yard, or a gallon of white paint won in a raffle? I have forgotten the name of the teacher on whose account I left school at 15. Yet I can remember the exact instance when I saw my bicycle rack empty in the school yard when I was 10. I can still feel the shock, the loss. ..How strange that childhood is readily remembered. Yet the most dramatic, the most decisive events of our lives pass into oblivion as if they had never taken place. My mind tells me I lived in this city for twenty years, that I had a wife, a job, home and children. I recall none of it. Even seeing my eldest daughter to-day brought only a swift, fleeting vision of her tiny face at the window one winter's evening. It was a quarter to eight, I was late. That's all. The rest is a vague feeling of time having passed, just as one is aware of a ship having moved beyond the horizon because it is no longer there when you look again. ..No, the mystery will remain. No one can know which pain will be remembered, which pleasure forgotten. I killed a man, yet I can't recall his face. Only his black leather gloves on the hall table beside my mail: a telephone bill, a circular from Pergamon Press, and a letter from my aunt, which I opened and read right away. It was to tell me my cousin Enid had another boy, her fourth. And the two black gloves slightly inflated, as if his hands were still in them."
♥ The two men fall silent.
The mayor, who enjoys a degree of power, suddenly gets a vision of a thousand and one delights. Of pleasures so sublime they are exquisite torture. He may be thinking of secret drugs and sacred rites, or vice versa. Fantasies of being (temporarily) a willing prisoner in a ruined temple, blinded by a strange light, or conversely, blinded by stygian dark.
And the father of the bride, who is indifferent to what the mayor dreams about, conjures a vision of power. Without limit. Power over his mother-in-law, the gardener, the bank, the President himself. Everyone will bow and call him Dottore in the zocalo. No one will dare arrest him.
♥ You can get used to anything, even leg irons.
♥ —I will hate you as long as I live.
On her moribund lips the words are a mere figure of speech. Love, hate, blame or gratitude: it is all the same to him, he is a doctor, after all, and does what he has been trained to do.
♥ —That's the man, the doctor. His wife is supposed to die on the 30th.
—What if she doesn't?
—Oh, but she will, he is a doctor.
—Suppose she rallies, they do sometimes, you know.
—Impossible—they say he treats his rats badly.
—Which one is his wife?
—The one with the sores.
—Did you know her when she was alive?
—Yes, she is pretty little thing, rather pathetic, always begging you to like her.
—Beggars can't be choosers.
—Doesn't she know that?
—Apparently not, or she would have chosen life.
♥ —Oh, how forthright you are! I admire a man who is sincere.
—Do you really? Not many people appreciate sincerity.
—Sincerity is so honest!
—Then you don't think my honesty is foolish?
—On the contrary. It takes a special mind to be perfectly honest.
Her perfume is convincing, but he must not be corrupted by externals.
♥ —My sister has become a vegetarian.
—There's an old Ukrainian proverb that says those who do not eat meat devour one another.
♥ I have been travelling a long time. From one strange place to another, from one dirty, ugly city to another. In the plane I look down on painted patches on a painted landscape. Nothing moves. I cannot even guess at the lives I know are being lived out down there behind the brushstrokes. And I, travelling on behalf of those invisible creatures, with a black leather case heavy with the facts of their existence, am, in turn, invisible to them. We will never meet.
And when my feet touch the ground, I am unable to distinguish the language spoken around me. I talk to no one. I make signs for my needs: a room, food, a taxi. Only the next flight saves me from disappearing altogether. I rush to the airport and get there hours ahead of time. I've escaped again. The loudspeaker clicks. The channel opens. Welcome aboard, the captain says.
♥ Well, I tried. She's wrong: her brother is not what she thinks he is. There he goes peddling truth, solemn as a missionary. O lord, prays Luba, find me a man with a sense of humour.
..Dreams Luba that somewhere in this world is a man who has been searching for her all his life.
..Suddenly, without warning and without her consent, her lover materializes beside her. He is hunchbacked, dwarfed, a large head straining from humped shoulders towards her. He has the face of a long-suffering saint. And in his beautiful face she recognizes a promise of the marvellous. A deep voice, unlike any other voice she has ever heard, the words riding on a melody.
—Ah, here you are. I've been looking all over for you.
—No, no, you've made a mistake...
—Come, my dear, come, it's time to go home...
..Anxiety in the voice. Fear of refusal? Something more than a car-ride is at stake.
As he keeps talking Luba recognizes the signs: the leading questions, the eye-to-eye punctuations, his unguarded face, the tension in the legs, the way he rocks on his heels. The glaring moment of his need illumines hers. She knows desire arises spontaneously and unless plucked at its ripeness falls wasted. A worm of a wrong word rots the fruit. Still, she hesitates. She is temped to take a risk, a long shot, and not give in right away. Some phone calls first, a few dinners, dancing maybe, diversions, dear god, to break the monotony. Yet, if she misses this chance, it would mean a long dreary winter without the sound of a key in the lock. She sighs. In the knowledge she will stay home nights waiting for the call from a phone booth. Then, as she always does when she yields to illusion, Luba puts her face close to his, an intimate touch on his arm, her voice low, yes, he may take her home.
♥ —Funny how death has changed her personality. I don't recall ever seeing her so violent, look, she's trying to scratch his face.
—She should have started long ago and not waited until she's dead and almost buried.
—Too bad she's going all at once. I mean, you can die in easy stages, take your time, don't trip over your shroud.
—Exactly. First, she should have had a few years of chronic diseases, bronchitis or a slipped disc or some rheumatism, together with a lapse of memory to avoid confrontations. There are easier ways of outwitting your husband than dying.
..—Or you can leave this world in other ways, not necessarily bodily or painfully. There's yoga or television or pot or sex, or a combination of them all.
—At our age it would have to be a little of each.
—You don't have to die to prove your existence.
♥ —Perhaps I didn't make myself clear: so long as there's tradition, we're free to break it. Do away with the conventions, then everything becomes conventional, even going up in smoke with your pets and your appliances. This way, with marriages and funerals and forks to the left and thank-you notes and daily baths, we have sign-posts to guide us.
—Or we can ignore them.
—At your own risk.
—At your own risk.
♥ Hold it! Flash bulbs pop. Smiling upturned faces.
Bride and groom linger at the foot of the stairs. This is the bride's final scene. She waits for the cheers, the good-wishes, the fond farewells, amidst a salvo of confetti and streamers. That is what she has paid for. Instead there is a paralysis. And silence. A boredom is spreading. The bride's mother has stopped blowing her nose. The captain's hand, hidden by the crowd, which has been kneading Judith's right hip, has dropped to his side. Raquel has stopped praying, although she still looks frightened. The bride's father puts back in his pocket photographs of land outside Tepoztlan that does not belong to him. The mayor has trouble breathing. Tony would like to get to bed, if Edie will let him fold and stack the chairs in the morning. Doris, who will die next Saturday, is self-conscious about the missing front tooth (upper) and covers her mouth with her hand. The ebullience of just a few moments ago has given way to impatience. Hurry up, get on with it, let the curtain come down, we've better things to do than stand and watch your act. There are love affairs to be started (ended); there are facts of life (death) to come to terms with; there is wealth (power) to be dreamt about; and there is, all that booze waiting that will give us surcease from love and facts and dreams.
Go on, get going! Edie flings open the front door. Cold sharp air causes heads to turn. Edie stands behind the door, out of the draft, and her voice is as sharp as the wind outside. "Hurry! I can't keep this door open forever, get out!" No choice. The stars exeunt, the heavy door shuts behind them. They are orphaned out on the dark deserted street. At an upstairs window a face (whose?) appears and disappears. They must tun to keep warm, which is just as well, as it creates an illusion of eagerness.
Inside the car, the bride trembles. Edie. You bitch. You damned grasping bitch. You promised, I paid you well. Another five minutes was all I needed. There was no proper leave taking: I parted from no one, left without a word, no one kissed me. I touched no one's hand. You robbed me of my final moments.
♥ —Any response is better than none.
—A laugh or a cry.
—Indifference is unbearable.
♥ They need not have delayed that extra hour. No one was nosing at the heels of their intent. No one had to be put off the track. The bride and groom were forgotten two minutes after they went out the door. All the parts had been played out: they were on their own the moment they got out of their wedding costumes. And they should have left town for a honeymoon, even a symbolic one: rituals are not to be trifled with.
♥ "..You shouldn't lie. It is a sin to lie. And the wages of sin are subject to inflation: you get less and less value for your sins as time goes on."
♥ "If virtue is its own reward, do you think evil is its own punishment?"
"Hard to say. It's all a matter of proportion. Small virtues and big evils are always rewarded. But large virtues and small evils should be punished because they're tedious."
♥ "..It's lucky for you you admitted who you are, otherwise I would have put my curse upon you."
"It wouldn't have worked. We Jews have been cursed by experts, beginning with Jehovah. Every curse known to man has already been put upon us."
♥ "Have you been in love?"
"And when you fell in love, did you wash his socks?"
"Naturally. And his hair-brush."
"Didn't last, did it? Oh, I know. Women keep making the same mistakes, over and over. Never wash your loved one's socks, or his hair-brush, or iron his trousers. Never handle those items which have touched his skin."
"But I like to, for that very reason."
"You see,m my dear, when you change the shape of those articles imbued with his essence, you leech out his virility. Then he leaves you for a woman who handles only perfume and diamonds."
♥ He is beside her, under the covers, caressing her into silence.
Because what he dislikes above all else are the questions. And afterwards, the demands... write me, phone me... It's so much simpler with the ones you pay. Besides, the conversation is less predictable.
♥ The radio plays sentimental tunes. Nostalgia descends gentle as summer rain, washes away sins, removes stains, bleaches pain. Love is possible. The disc jockey blesses all lovers listening at this hour. Then he ends the benediction with the exact time and weather report. Assurances are withdrawn. All bets are off. Until the next record starts and longing begins all over again.
Father. When you spoke to me to-day it was the sound of Indian summer. Where were you when I needed your voice to dance to. Father.
♥ —In about a year. I'll go away, disappear, lock myself up somewhere and come back with the baby. That will help you, won't it? It will throw them off—they will think you have become a father. No one need know the truth.
—I'll have to tell Leon.
—If you must. And I'll have my babies back, poor wee bastards, pushing their way out of bloody wombs, filling their lungs, not knowing their fate.
—We'll make it up to them for having been born.
The rest of the night is spent lying fully dressed on top of the cotton bedspread, covered only with their greatcoats. They sleep fitfully. He keeps waking up, reaching for her hand and holding on to it as if to restrain her from leaving. In the middle of the night, his delicate snores wake her. Her heart pounds for a long time as she stares into the dark, turning her head now and again, as if to establish her whereabouts.
Daylight is still feeble at the window when husband and wife stir in wakefulness. They appear to sense one another's intention, for they simultaneously leave the bed, put on their greatcoats and go out from the room. In the shadow of the little hall (someone has turned out the electric light) they whisper: