Beauty against Force: Simone Weil’s Venice Saved

The tragedy Venise sauvée (Venice Saved) is Simone Weil’s only literary works. She began writing it in 1940, and continued to work on it until her early death interrupted its completion in 1943. The action takes place in a Venice threatened by a plot, but saved by one of the conspirators who, seized by its beauty, cannot bring himself to take it by force. Although, like many of Weil’s writings, it is rarely read due to its incompleteness, the play offers a synthesis of the philosopher’s views on ethics, politics and even ontology.

Inspired by the Conjuration des Espagnols contre la République de Venise en l’Année MDCXVIII (1820), by the Abbé de Saint-Réal, the action takes place in 1618 against the backdrop of a conspiracy to overthrow the Serenissima Republic of Venice and place it under the control of the Spanish Empire. A group of mercenaries, led by the characters Renaud, an old French lord, and Pierre and Jaffier, two privateers from Provence, plan to seize the city on Ascension night, just as the Venetians are celebrating their sea betrothal, a sort of national holiday during which the Doge boards his ceremonial galley to cast a golden ring into the sea, symbolizing his city’s domination over the sea. From the outset, we see the antagonism between two typical political ideals: the city and the empire.

Empire: The Archetype of Strength

First and foremost, the Spanish empire of the House of Habsburg. Its hegemonic aspirations is expressed by Renaud in a speech to his troops:

Thanks to you, the whole of Europe will be united under the Habsburg dynasty, and the ships of a united Europe, sailing the seas, will conquer, civilize and convert to Christianity the entire globe, just as Spain did for America. And it will all be thanks to you…. The House of Austria is very close to universal domination; if it lets it slip, bloody, long and ruinous struggles will ensue all around (Venise sauvée, I, 2).

Here, the empire appears to be driven by a movement of expansion, which will only end in universal domination. However, this expansion is presented here as subordinate to two aims: the verb “to conquer” is followed by “to civilize, to convert to Christianity.” Yet it is hard to give real substance to these aims, given that the hegemony of the House of Austria, which reigned over Spain at the time, immediately comes to the fore in Renaud’s discourse. If these manifestly cosmetic ends make the strengthening of the empire seem like a means, it appears here as its own end: the empire serves its strength as much as it serves itself. Indeed, Weil seems to place the Habsburg empire in a filiation that runs through Western history: that of Rome, the hegemony drunk with conquest. This Roman spirit, devoid of any real spirituality, conquering and dominating, would run through the history of Europe right up to Hitler at the time of her writing, via the colonial empires of the 15th to 19th centuries. This is what she suggests in La Personne et le sacré when she writes: “The Romans, who understood, as Hitler did, that force is only fully effective when it is clothed in a few ideas, used the notion of right for this purpose.”

Here, we find a relationship to the notion of right, analogous to that which the conspirators have with civilization or religion, which are summoned only to clothe force. Simone Weil’s notion of force is the subject of particular elaboration, notably in L’Iliade ou le poème de la force, where she characterizes it as a mechanism that acts on bodies and minds, reducing them to the status of things. Indeed, she sees force as the main subject of The Iliad, which perfectly depicts its effects on its characters, singing with equal melancholy of the loss of Greek and Trojan heroes. Force is at work, for example, when, in the hands of Achilles, it reduces a begging Hector to a thing, or when it intoxicates the victorious Achaeans, who find themselves submissive to its impulse and go on to the total destruction of Ilion:

The victorious soldier is like a scourge of nature; possessed by war, he is as much a thing as the slave, though in a very different way, and words have no power over him as over matter…. Such is the nature of force. The power it possesses to transform men into things is twofold and is exercised from two sides; it petrifies equally the souls of those who suffer it and those who wield it (L’Iliade ou le poème de la force)

Through the Spanish conquests, the mechanics of force are at work, making both the conqueror and the conquered their own. Rome, Habsburg Spain, Hitler, the empire is thus the collective at its most dangerous, the vessel through which force crushes individuals, the allegory of the Big Animal with its random movements used by Plato (Republic, 493d) to imitate the inertia of collective opinion that drags souls along.

The City: Archetype of Harmony

Facing the empire, the city. The lexicon of the city refers almost systematically to beauty. This beauty is crystallized in the betrothal festival at sea that is about to take place, as seen in the joy it brings to the character of Violetta, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman:

Oh, how I wish I could be there tomorrow! Have you never seen the Venice festival? There’s nothing like it in the world; you’ll see tomorrow! What a joy for me, tomorrow, to show you my city in its most perfect splendor! There will be such beautiful music… (Venise sauvée, II, 3).

The beauty of the feast seems to culminate in music. Given the centrality of reading Plato in Weilian thought, it is hard not to see an echo of the role he attributes to it in Books IV and VII of The Republic. Like gymnastics for the body, music is described as the cultivation of harmony in the soul. Here, Venice appears on the side of Western Hellenic heritage. In contrast to Rome, Greece represents the rooted civilization par excellence, a community that, rather than crushing individuals, nurtures them by allowing them a “real, active and natural participation in the existence of a community that keeps alive certain treasures of the past and certain presentiments of the future,” so as to “receive almost the totality of its moral, intellectual and spiritual life through the intermediary of the environments of which [the individual] is naturally a part” (L’Enracinement). This moment of Venetian communion in the beauty of one of their traditions is precisely the one chosen by the Spaniards to subdue the Venetians by uprooting them by force, as Renaud explains to Jaffier, in charge of executing the plan: “Tonight and tomorrow, the people here must feel that they are only toys, that they are lost. The ground must suddenly and forever give way from under their feet, and they must be able to find equilibrium only by obeying you” (Venice Saved, II, 6). Thus, by uprooting it—that is, by destroying the beauty and harmony that the city cultivates—the empire seeks to throw it into the arms of the force that drives it, in order to subjugate it.

A City Saved by its Beauty

The action concludes with Jaffier’s denunciation of the conspiracy, resulting in the arrest of his companions and his banishment from the city, hated by the Venetians who see him as a traitor to the Republic as well as to his own people. Haunted by the guilt of having delivered his companions to their death, he finally takes his own life. His decision to betray the conspirators seems to come from a sort of revelation of the city’s beauty during a discussion with a Venetian nobleman and his daughter Violetta: “No man can do such a thing as Venice. Only God. The greatest thing a man can do, which brings him closer to God, is, since he cannot create such wonders, to preserve those that exist.” The effect of beauty on Jaffier’s soul cannot be summed up here as a form of seduction that would divert him from his mission. It is to be understood in the context of the ontology that Simone Weil developed in various writings at the end of her life, consisting mainly of a rather original exegesis of Plato.

According to Fernando Rey Puente, this exegesis postulates a profound internal unity in Plato’s work, set in the context of a Greek civilization whose spirituality was centered around the idea of mediation between divine eternity on the one hand, and human misery on the other. Thus, Plato’s thought consists of the articulation of pairs of antagonistic notions: “identity and diversity, unity and multiplicity, absolute and relative, pure good and good mixed with evil, spiritual and sensible, supernatural and natural” in two relationships: contradiction and analogy. This confrontation of opposites, from which the intermediary between them emerges, is then understood by Weil as the driving force behind Platonic dialectics, described in The Republic as the means by which the soul tears itself away from appearances and rises to the contemplation of the intelligible.

In the ontological domain, this structuring duality is the relationship between Good and Necessity, understood as the chain of causes and effects that conditions the becoming of all things here below. At first glance, it appears as an antagonism, particularly in the Weilian reading of The Iliad, which shows the world inside the Cave, deprived of good, where necessity is embodied in the force at play with characters struggling, passive in the face of it. Plato’s work then consists precisely in thinking the intermediary and the passage from this reality to the good. In this respect, The Republic must be seen in relation to other dialogues, as she points out in her Cahiers (“February 1942-June 1942”):

“An Aborted Iliad”

Basically, there is only one path to salvation in Plato; the various dialogues indicate different parts of the path. The Republic does not say what first does violence to the chained captive to remove the chains and compel the unfortunate. We will have to look for that in The Phaedrus. It is beauty, by means of love (every value that appears in the sensible world is beauty). It is the contemplation of beauty in the order of the world, conceived a priori. Next comes beauty as an attribute of God, and then the Good. Then the return to the cave; this is The Timaeus.

Indeed, The Timaeus depicts the sensible world in terms of the Demiurge’s will: “He (the Demiurge) was good, and in that which is good there is no jealousy of anyone. Without jealousy, he wished all things to become like him” (29e). From this perspective, necessity, which orders the becoming of the sensible world, is an imitation of the Good emanating from the Demiurge. This perspective clarifies what, in The Republic, appeared to be an abrupt dualism between the intelligible, good world, and the sensible, marked by necessity. Indeed, in The Timaeus, becoming is beautiful insofar as it bears the imprint of the Good. The Symposium and The Phaedrus make this intermediary role of beauty explicit, showing how it is the sensible presence of the Good in things, correlated with the love personified by Eros, the daemon who comes to possess souls in the form of madness, to carry them towards it.

Thus, when Jaffier pays attention to the beauty of Venice, he is literally seized with love for this city, which, as Weil writes of art, “is an attempt to transport in a finite quantity of matter shaped by man an image of the infinite beauty of the entire universe” (Formes de l’Amour implicite de Dieu). The emergence of this beauty in his soul subtracts it from the inertia of force and imbues it with a movement of love, which translates into a renunciation of the need to destroy the object of love. In the words of Léo Tixier in the preface to the Payot et Rivages edition, Venise sauvée is “like an aborted Iliad,” in that Jaffier prevents another sack of Troy. Paradoxically, through the beauty of the city of the Doges and his attention to it, Jaffier also saves himself through his sacrifice.

This state of grace gives it full life in a final gesture of love, in contrast to the state of inertia in which force holds man under its sway. This double salvation by beauty, of a city and a man, illustrates how, far from being superfluous and ornamental, beauty is a need of the soul just as fundamental as food is to the body, as Weil herself writes in L’Enracinement: “The point of view of aesthetes is sacrilegious, not only in matters of religion, but even in matters of art. It consists in having fun with beauty by manipulating it and looking at it. Beauty is something to be eaten; it is food.”


Mattis Jambon writes from the Sorbonne. This articles appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.


Featured: The Bucintore Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day, by Canaletto; painted ca. 1727-1729.


Péguy in the Afternoon

As the light fades in the epilogue of this afternoon, I approach one of the shelves of my library. There sleep, crowded, a legion of French authors. Those of us who live possessed by a bibliophile passion usually ask ourselves: are we the ones who seek out books or are they the ones who come to meet us? Are we surrounded by fossils that receive the vital pneuma when we take them in our hands? Or is that the books let themselves be annihilated by the dust of the years, as the skin of their pages silently oxidizes? Have we ever found ourselves in this enigmatic and peculiar way of living, surrounded by a chorus of absent voices that emanate from the walls of our house?

Among the names, I read one: Charles Péguy. The title sounds irrefutably Pascalian: Pensamientos (Thoughts). The book gathers a series of brief meditations, in the form of aphorisms that do not reach the level of greguerías because they lack that principality of images and metaphors, so typical of Ramón; but they have plenty of depth, rebelliousness and seriousness.

Péguy’s work compiles a bunch of quotations taken from the original version of his Cahiers de la Quinzaine, notes of the French writer between 1900 and 1914. In fact, in an entry dated April 1914, we read the following: “There are as few painters who look as there are philosophers who think.” And that sentence is enough to light the flame of a new article.

Art and philosophy have an urgent task that cannot be postponed: to learn to look. Art, because it has lost its way in the subjectivism that turns into inconsequence; philosophy, because it has accepted its descent from queen to vassal and has lost its dignity: without a metaphysical horizon, in this invention of “post-truth” it is reduced to an ancilla of the ideologies of the moment.

It is necessary that the painter does not forget to look, or better yet, to see properly in what he looks at. Atahualpa Yupanqui wrote it in a milonga of my land: “For the one who looks without seeing, the land is just land, the pampa, the stream or the willow grove say nothing to him.” The painter must have the vocation of a demiurge; that is to say, to capture that which he has first contemplated. In an article published by the newspaper El País on September 4, 1987, Paco Umbral praised the work of the painter Antonio López in these terms:

Antonio looks for the same thing in Madrid that he looked for in his landscapes of Tomelloso: a last or first glimmer; that way of behaving that reality has, a sun wound in the glass chest of a viewpoint. Life, in short, that his pupil distributes in jewels.

It is almost an Augustinian itinerary, from the outside in and from the inside up: co-creators with the Word; art as a vocation of fidelity to the real. Antonio López’s painting is a prayer arising from things, from the flesh of a quince, from a cracked wall, from an ignored refrigerator, from the bathroom mirror or from La Gran Vía in Madrid when the morning dawns. Antonio knows how to look.

And what is the task of the philosopher, you may ask? To answer this question, it is first necessary to make a distinction of the circles: it is one thing to be a professor of philosophy, another to be a teacher of philosophy, and a last, more arduous and higher vocation is to be a philosopher.

A professor of philosophy is one who carries in his head the ideas of others. It is a necessary vocation to make the essentials of this subject accessible to others. A good professor of philosophy tries to expose each thinker by putting on his shoes; the critical task comes later. Here is the first circle.

A teacher in philosophy is one who fulfills the principle established by Thomas Aquinas: “Contemplata allis trader;” that is to say, to transmit what is contemplated. As one senses, it is a higher degree than the mere expositor of the ideas of others. The teacher in philosophy not only expounds, shows, reveals, carries to the end the heart of a philosophical doctrine, but also opens windows towards autonomous thought. If philosophizing is “to go on the way”—as Karl Jaspers said—while the philosophy teacher tells us about the forest, the teacher points out its paths, showing us the clearings as revelations.

And on the highest rung, the philosopher. Philosophizing is a vocation marked by a yearning for the ultimate possible reality. Another Frenchman, Etienne Gilson, saw this very clearly when, in Vademecum of the Beginner Realist, he taught that, while the philosopher speaks of things, the professor of philosophy speaks of philosophy. Philosopher is he who can coin in a peculiar synthesis a thought of his own. “Own” here means “personal,” which has nothing to do with extravagance, with intellectual pose or with the eroticism of mere novelty. True philosophy requires two spheres: one intra nos, that which we macerate in intimate solitude, an inhabited solitude that will never be a cloistered monologue. Its raison d’être is given by listening to the real. At the beginning of our life, were we not listeners before we spoke? The other sphere is given inter nos, “between us,” for the philosopher can never renounce community. Every philosopher, as a being-in-the-world, is traversed by a language, by a spiritual imprint, by an inalienable cultural ethos.

Péguy takes the floor again to complete our intuition:

A great philosopher is a man who has discovered, who has made explicit some new aspect, some—new—reality of eternal reality; he is a man who, with his own voice, enters in his turn into the eternal concert.

Péguy has things of Plotinus and Augustine, of Thomas and Pascal, of Kierkegaard and Bergson; I believe that they converse at night, wall to wall, in this house full of books.


Diego Chiaramoni is Professor of Philosophy at the Instituto A.M. Sáenz and holds a degree in Philosophy from the UNSTA, in addition to having studied Psychology at the USAL.


The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

A fresh translation of Dostoevsky’s short story, which was first published in 1877.

I

I am a ridiculous fellow. They call me crazy now. That would be a step up in rank, if I were not still as ridiculous to them as I was before. But now I am not angry, they are all nice to me now, even when they laugh at me—and then they are especially nice. I would laugh with them myself, not at myself, but out of love for them, if I were not so sad to look at them. Sad because they don’t know the truth, and I know the truth. Oh, how hard it is to know the truth all alone! But they won’t understand it. No, they won’t.

And earlier on, I used to feel very sad because I seemed ridiculous. I didn’t just seem ridiculous, I was ridiculous. I’ve always been ridiculous, and I’ve known it maybe since I was born. Maybe as early as seven years old I knew I was ridiculous. Then I went to school, then I went to university and well—the more I studied, the more I learned that I was ridiculous. So, for me all my university learning seemed to exist only for that purpose—to prove and explain to me, as I went deeper into it, that I am ridiculous. Similarly, as in science, so it went in life. With each passing year the same consciousness of my ridiculousness in every respect grew and strengthened in me. I was laughed at by everyone and at all times. But they did not know or guess that if there was a person on earth who knew more than anyone else that I was ridiculous, it was me—and that was the most offensive for me that they did not know it, but here I was to blame—I was always so proud that I never wanted to admit it to anyone. This pride grew in me as the years went by, and if I had ever let myself confess to anyone that I was ridiculous, I think I would have blown off my head with a revolver that very evening. Oh, how I suffered in my adolescence that I would not be able to bear it and that I would suddenly confess it to my friends. But since becoming a young man, though I’ve learned more and more about my terrible quality every year, I’ve somehow become a little calmer, somehow, though I still can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps because in my soul a terrible melancholy was growing for one circumstance that was already infinitely above me: it was the conviction that had come over me that nothing in the world really mattered. I had felt this for a very long time, but the full conviction came suddenly in the last year. I suddenly felt that I wouldn’t care if the world existed or if there was nothing anywhere. I began to hear and feel with all my being that nothing was with me. At first it seemed to me that there had been a lot of things before, but then I realized that there had been nothing before, but only seemed to be for some reason. Little by little I became convinced that there would never be anything. Then I suddenly ceased to be angry with people and almost began not to notice them. For instance, I would happen to be walking down the street and bump into people. And it was not out of thoughtfulness: what was there for me to think about, I stopped thinking completely—I did not care at all. And it would have been good if I had solved issues; oh, I had not solved a single one, and how many were there? But I did not care, and the issues disappeared.

And so, after that time, I learned the truth. I learned the truth last November, on the third of November, and since that time I can remember every moment of that day. It was on a gloomy evening, the gloomiest evening there can be. I was returning home at eleven o’clock at night, and I remember thinking that there could not be a darker time. Even physically. It had been raining all day, and it was the coldest and gloomiest rain, a sort of threatening rain, I remember, with an obvious hostility to people, and then suddenly, at eleven o’clock, it stopped, and there was a terrible dampness, wetter and colder than when it rained, and there was steam coming from everything, from every stone in the street and from every alley, if you looked into it from the street. I suddenly imagined that if the gas had gone out everywhere, it would have been more cheerful, because with the gas it was sadder to my heart, because it lit everything all up. I had hardly eaten lunch that day, and from early evening I had sat at an engineer’s house, while two other friends were sitting with him. I kept quiet and I think I bored them. They were talking about something provocative and suddenly they even got all fired up. But they didn’t care, I could see that, and they only pretended to be all fired up. I suddenly said to them: “Gentlemen, I say, you don’t care.” They were not offended, but they all laughed at me. It was because I said it without any reproach, and simply because I did not care. They saw that I didn’t care, and they were amused.

When I was outside thinking about gas, I looked up at the sky. The sky was terribly dark, but you could clearly make out torn clouds, and between them fathomless black spots. Suddenly, I noticed a star in one of those spots and began to stare at it intently. It was because this star gave me an idea: I had decided to kill myself that night. I had firmly decided two months ago, and poor as I am, I bought a fine revolver and loaded it the same day. But two months passed, and it was still lying in the drawer; but I did not care so much that I wanted to find a moment when I would not care so much, for what reason I do not know. And so, during those two months, every night when I came home, I thought I would shoot myself. I kept waiting for the minute. And now this little star brought me the thought, and I decided that it would certainly be this night. I don’t know why the star gave me the idea.

As I was looking up at the sky, I was suddenly grabbed by elbow by this girl. The street was already empty, and there was hardly anyone about. In the distance, a cabman was sleeping on a coach. The girl was about eight years old, in a kerchief and one dress, all wet, but I remembered especially her wet torn shoes, and I remember them now. They caught my eye particularly. Suddenly she started tugging at my elbow and calling me. She was not crying, but somehow she shouted some words that she could not pronounce well, for she was shivering with a bit of tremor in the chill. She was somehow terrified, and cried out desperately, “Mammy! Mommy!” I turned my face toward her, but I did not say a word and kept on walking, but she ran and tugged at me, and there was that sound in her voice which in very frightened children means despair. I know that sound. Even though she didn’t finish the words, I realized that her mother was dying somewhere, or something had happened to them, and she ran out to call someone, to find something to help her mother. But I didn’t follow her, and on the contrary, I had the sudden idea to chase her away. I first told her to find a policeman. But she suddenly folded her arms and, sobbing and panting, kept running sideways and would not leave me. That’s when I stomped my foot and shouted. She just shouted: “Sir, Sir!” But suddenly she left me and ran across the street: a passer-by appeared there, and she must have rushed from me to him.

I went up to my fifth floor. I rent a room from the owners; there are other renters who also have rooms. My room is poor and small, and the attic window is semi-circular. I have a cloth sofa, a table with books on it, two chairs, and a tired armchair, old as old can be, but a Voltaire one. I sat down, lit a candle and began to think. Next door, in the other room, behind a partition, the pandemonium continued. It had been going on for the past three days. A retired captain lived there, and he had guests, six men, who drank vodka and played Stoss with old cards. Last night there was a fight, and I know two of them dragged each other by the hair for a long time. The landlady wanted to complain, but she is terribly afraid of the captain. We have only one other tenant in our rooms, a small and thin lady, from the regiment, who came here, with three small children who got sick when they took loding. Both she and the children are frightened of the captain to the point of fainting and trembling and crossing themselves all night, and the youngest child had a seizure out of fear. This captain, I know for sure, stops passers-by on Nevsky and begs for money. He is not accepted for service, but, strange to say (I am telling you this just for the sake of telling you this), the captain has not aroused any annoyance in me during the whole month since he has been living with us.

Of course, I avoided getting to know him from the very beginning, and he was bored with me from the very first. But no matter how much they shouted behind their partition, and no matter how many of them there were, I never cared. I sit up all night, and I don’t hear them, that is how much I forget them. I’ve been up till dawn every night for a year now. I sit all night at my desk in my armchair and do nothing. I only read books during the day. I don’t even think; I just let my thoughts wander and let them go. The candle burns out in the night. I sat down quietly by the table, took out my revolver and put it in front of me. As I put it down, I remember asking myself: “Is it like this?” and I answered myself in the affirmative: “Like this.” I mean, I’m going to shoot myself. I knew that I would probably shoot myself that night, but I did not know how long I would sit at the table until then. And I certainly would have shot myself if it hadn’t been for that girl.

II

You see, even though I didn’t care, I could feel pain. If someone had hit me, I would have felt pain. And so it is in moral terms: if something very miserable happened, I would feel pity, just as I did when I still cared about life. I did feel pity the other day: I would have helped the child. Why didn’t I help the girl? It was because of an idea that appeared at that time: when she was pulling and calling me, a question suddenly arose before me and I could not solve it. It was an idle question, but I was angry. I was angry because of the conclusion that if I had already decided that I would kill myself this night, then everything in the world must now, more than ever, become indifferent to me. Why did I suddenly feel that I cared and felt sorry for the girl? I remember that I felt very sorry for her; to a degree that was even strangely painful and quite unbelievable in my position. I do not know how best to convey this fleeting feeling of mine at that time, but the feeling continued at home, when I was already sitting at the table, and I was very irritated, as I had not been for a long time. One rationale followed another. It seemed clear that if I am a human being, and I am not yet a nonentity, and I have not yet turned into a nonentity, then I live, and consequently I can suffer, get angry and feel shame for my deeds. So be it. But if I kill myself, for example, in two hours, what is the girl to me, and what do I care about shame and everything in the world? I turn into nothingness, into absolute nothingness. And could the consciousness that I would not exist at all right now, and therefore nothing would exist, not have the slightest influence—either on the feeling of pity for the girl, or on the feeling of shame after the mean deed I had done? After all, that is why I stomped my foot and shouted in a wild voice at the unhappy child that, not only do I not feel pity, but if I do an inhuman meanness, I can do it now, because in two hours everything will be gone. Do you believe that’s why I shouted? I am now almost convinced of it. It seemed clear that life and the world right now as it were depended on me. One could even say that the world is right now as if made for me alone: if I shoot myself, there will be no world, at least for me. Not to mention that, perhaps, there will be nothing for anyone after me, and the whole world will fade away as soon as my consciousness fades away, fade away immediately as a ghost, as belonging to my consciousness alone, and will be abolished, because, perhaps, this whole world and all these people are myself alone.

I remember that, sitting there and reasoning. I turned all these new questions, which were crowding in one after another, in a completely different direction and came up with something completely new. For example, I suddenly had a strange thought that if I had lived before on the moon or on Mars and had done there some of the most shameful and dishonorable deeds imaginable, and had been scolded and dishonored there for it in such a way as can be felt and imagined only sometimes in a dream, in a nightmare, and if, when I found myself back on earth, I continued to be conscious of what I had done on the other planet, and, moreover, knew that I would never and ever return there, then, looking from earth to the moon, would I care or not? Would I feel shame for that deed or not? The questions were idle and superfluous, for the revolver was already in front of me, and I knew with all my being that it would probably be so, but they made me excited and mad. It was as if I could not die now without having resolved something beforehand. In a word, this girl saved me, because I had putting off the gun shot. In the meantime, everything began to quiet over at the captain’s room: they had finished playing cards and were getting ready for bed, but in the meantime they were grumbling and lazily arguing.

I suddenly fell asleep, which had never happened to me before, at the table or in the chairs. I fell asleep quite unnoticeably. Dreams, as you know, are an extremely strange thing: one thing appears with terrifying clarity, with jeweler-fine details, and you jump through another, as if not noticing at all, for example, through space and time. Dreams seem to be driven not by reason but by desire, not by the head but by the heart, and yet what cunning things my reason sometimes did in my dreams! Meanwhile, things quite incomprehensible happen to me in dreams. My brother, for example, died five years ago. I sometimes see him in my dreams: he takes part in my affairs, we are very much interested, and yet I know and remember that my brother is dead and buried. How can I not marvel at the fact that he is dead, but still is here beside me and concerned about me? Why does my mind absolutely allow all this?

But enough. I shall now proceed to my dream. Yes, I had that dream then, my dream of the third of November! They tease me now that it was only a dream. But does it matter whether it was a dream or not, if it was a dream that announced the Truth to me? For if you recognize the truth and see it, you know that it is the truth and there is no other and cannot be, whether you are sleeping or living. Well, let the dream be a dream, and let it be, but this life, which you so exalt, I wanted to extinguish by suicide, but my dream, my dream—oh, it announced to me a new, great, renewed, strong life!

Listen.

III

I said that I fell asleep imperceptibly, and even as if continuing to reason about the same matter. Suddenly I dreamed that I took a revolver and, sitting up, pointed it straight at my heart—at my heart, not at my head; I had decided to shoot myself in the head, and it was in the right temple. I waited a second or two, and my candle, the table, and the wall in front of me suddenly moved and rippled. I fired quickly.

In a dream you sometimes fall from a height, or you get or beaten, but you never feel pain, except if you really hurt yourself in bed, then you feel pain and always wake up almost from pain. And so it was in my dream—I felt no pain, but I imagined that with my shot everything in me was shaken and everything was suddenly extinguished, and it became terribly black around me. It was as if I were blinded and numb, and here I was lying on something hard, stretched out, on my back, unable to see anything and unable to make the slightest movement. People are walking and shouting around me, the captain’s bass voice, the landlady’s shrieking, and suddenly there is a break again, and now I am being carried in a closed coffin. And I feel the coffin swaying, and think about it; and suddenly I am struck for the first time by the idea that I am dead, quite dead, I know it and do not doubt it; I do not see and do not move, and yet I feel and reason. But I soon put up with it and, as usual in a dream, accept the reality without argument.

And then they bury me in the ground. Everyone leaves. I’m alone, completely alone. I’m not moving. When I had always imagined being buried in a grave, the only thing I had ever connected with the grave was the sensation of dampness and cold. Now I felt that I was very cold, especially to the ends of my toes, but I felt nothing else.

I lay there and, strangely enough, waited for nothing, accepting without dispute that there is nothing to wait for in the dead. But it was damp. I don’t know how much time had passed—an hour, or a few days, or many days. But suddenly a drop of water that had seeped through the roof of the coffin fell on my left closed eye, followed a minute later by another, then a minute later by a third, and so on and so forth, all in a minute. A deep indignation was suddenly kindled in my heart, and suddenly I felt a physical pain in it: “This is my wound,” I thought, “this is the shot, there is the bullet.” And the drop kept dripping, every minute and right on my closed eye. And I suddenly cried out, not with my voice, for I was immovable, but with my whole being, to the ruler about everything that was happening to me:

“Whoever you are, and if you really exist, and if there is anything more reasonable than what is now being done, then let it be here right now. If you are avenging my unreasonable suicide by the ugliness and absurdity of my further existence, then know that no torment, whatever may befall me, can ever compare with the contempt which I shall feel in silence, even if it be for millions of years of martyrdom!”

I cried out and was silent. For almost a whole minute there was a deep silence, and even another drop fell, but I knew, I knew and believed without limit and without fail that everything was about to change. And then suddenly my grave opened. That is, I do not know whether it was opened and dug, but I was taken by some dark and unknown to me being, and we found ourselves in space. I had a sudden epiphany: it was deep night, and never, never had it been so dark! We were traveling in space far away from the earth. I did not ask the one who was carrying me anything; I waited and was yet proud. I assured myself that I was not afraid, and winced with admiration at the thought that I was not. I don’t remember how long we were traveling, and I can’t imagine; everything was happening as it always does in dreams, when you jump through space and time and through the laws of being and reason, and stop only at the spots your heart dreams about. I remember suddenly seeing a single star in the darkness. “Is that Sirius?” I asked, suddenly unable to help myself, for I did not want to ask anything. “No, it is the same star you saw between the clouds on your way home,” answered the being who was carrying me away.

I knew that it had a sort of human face. Strangely enough, I did not love this creature, even felt a deep disgust. I waited for perfect nothingness, and with that I shot myself in the heart. And here I was in the hands of a creature, certainly not human, but which lived, which existed: “And so there is life beyond the grave!” I thought with the strange levity of a dream, but the essence of my heart remained with me in all its depths: “And if it is necessary to be again,” I thought, “and to live again by someone’s indefeasible will, I do not want to be defeated and humiliated!”

“You know that I am afraid of you, and for that you despise me,” I said suddenly to my companion, unable to resist the humiliating question in which the confession consisted, and feeling my humiliation like the prick of a pin in my heart. He did not answer my question, but I suddenly felt that I was not despised, or laughed at, or even pitied, and that our journey had a purpose, unknown and mysterious, and concerning me alone. Fear was growing in my heart. Something mutely, but with anguish, was communicated to me by my silent companion and seemed to penetrate me. We were traveling through dark and unknown spaces. I had long ago stopped seeing constellations familiar to the eye. I knew that there were such stars in the celestial spaces, from which rays reach the earth only in thousands and millions of years. Perhaps we had traveled through these spaces before. I was waiting for something with a terrible, heart-wrenching longing. Suddenly a familiar and highly inviting feeling shook me: suddenly I saw our sun! I knew that it could not be our sun, which had given birth to our earth, and that we were at an infinite distance from our sun, but I recognized somehow, with all my being, that it was exactly the same sun as ours, a repetition of it and a double of it. A sweet, beckoning feeling resounded in my soul: the original power, the light, the same light that gave birth to me, echoed in my heart and revived it, and I felt life, the old life, for the first time since my grave.

“But if it is the sun, if it is a sun like ours,” I cried, “where is the earth?

And my companion pointed to a star that glowed emerald in the darkness. We were heading straight for it.

“And is it possible that there can be such repetitions in the universe? Is it a natural law? And if that’s the earth there, is it the same earth as ours? Completely the same, miserable, poor, but dear and eternally loved, and the same painful love that gives birth to itself even in the most ungrateful of its children, as ours does?” I cried out, shaking with irrepressible, rapturous love for that native former land which I had left. The image of the poor girl whom I had wronged flashed before me.

“You will see everything,” replied my companion, and there was a kind of sadness in his words.

But we were rapidly approaching the planet. It was growing bigger before my eyes, I could already distinguish the ocean, the outlines of Europe, and suddenly a strange feeling of some great, holy jealousy flared up in my heart: “How can there be such a repetition, and for what purpose? I love, I can only love that land which I left behind, on which my blood spattered when I, ungrateful, extinguished my life with a shot in my heart. But never, never have I ceased to love that land, and even that night, parting from it, I may have loved it more agonizingly than ever. Is there torment in this new land? In our land we can truly love only with agony and only through agony! We do not know how to love otherwise, nor do we know any other kind of love. I want agony in order to love. I want, I long at this moment to kiss, to pour tears over only that one land, which I left, and I do not want, I do not accept life on any other!”

But my companion had already left me. Suddenly, as if unbeknownst to me, I was on this other land in the bright light of a sunny, paradise-like day. I was standing, I think, on one of those islands which make up the Greek archipelago on our earth, or somewhere on the coast of the mainland adjoining that archipelago. Oh, everything was exactly as it was with us, but it seemed to shine everywhere with some kind of festivity and great, holy and accomplished triumph at last. The gentle emerald sea was quietly splashing against the shores and kissing them with love, explicit, visible, almost conscious. Tall, beautiful trees stood in all the splendor of their color, and their countless leaves, I am convinced, greeted me with their quiet, affectionate murmurs and as if they were uttering some words of love. The meadow was ablaze with bright fragrant flowers. Birds flew in flocks in the air and, unafraid of me, sat on my shoulders and hands and beat me joyfully with their sweet, fluttering wings. And at last I saw and recognized the people of this happy land. They came to me by themselves, they surrounded me, they kissed me. Children of the sun, children of their sun—oh, how beautiful they were! Never have I seen such beauty in man in our land. Only in our children, in the very first years of their age, could one find a distant, though faint, glimmer of this beauty.

The eyes of these happy people shone with a clear luster. Their faces shone with intelligence and some kind of consciousness that had already been restored to calmness, but their faces were cheerful; there was a childlike joy in their words and voices. Oh, I immediately, at the first sight of their faces, understood everything, everything! This was a land not defiled by the fall into sin, where people who had not sinned lived, in the same paradise in which, according to the traditions of all mankind, our sinful forebears also lived, with the only difference that the whole earth was the same paradise everywhere. These people, laughing joyfully, crowded to me and caressed me; they took me to themselves, and each of them wanted to comfort me. Oh, they did not ask me anything, but as if they knew everything, so it seemed to me, and they wanted to drive away the suffering from my face as soon as possible.

IV

You see the point, again—well, let it have been only a dream! But the feeling of the love of these innocent and beautiful people has remained in me forever, and I feel that their love is poured out upon me even now from there. I saw them myself; I knew them and became convinced about them; I loved them; I suffered for them afterward. Oh, I immediately realized, even then, that in many respects I would not understand them at all; to me, as a modern Russian progressivist and a vile Petersburger, it seemed insoluble, for example, that they, knowing so much, did not have our science. But I soon realized that their knowledge was replenished and nourished by different insights than ours on earth, and that their aspirations were also quite different. They wanted nothing and were calm; they did not strive to know life as we strive to know it, because their life was full.

But their knowledge was deeper and higher than that of our science; for our science seeks to explain what life is, and seeks to realize it in order to teach others how to live; but they knew how to live without science; and this I understood, but I could not understand their knowledge. They pointed to their trees, and I could not understand the degree of love with which they looked at them—it was as if they were speaking to their own kind. And you know, perhaps I would not be mistaken if I said that they spoke to them! Yes, they found their language, and I am convinced that they understood them. Thus, they looked at all nature—at the animals that lived peacefully with them, did not attack them, and loved them, overcome by their own love. They pointed me to the stars and spoke to me about them, about something I could not understand, but I am convinced that they were in touch with the heavenly stars in some way, not by thought alone, but in some living way. Oh, these people did not want me to understand them; they loved me without it; but I knew that they would never understand me either; and therefore I hardly ever spoke to them about our land. I only kissed the land on which they lived, and adored them without words, and they saw this and let themselves be adored, not ashamed that I adored them, because they themselves loved a lot.

They did not suffer for me when I, in tears, sometimes kissed their feet, knowing in my heart with joy what power of love they would reciprocate. At times I asked myself in wonder—how could they not, all the time, insult someone like me and never once stir up feelings of jealousy and envy in someone like me? Many times I asked myself, how could I, a braggart and a liar, not tell them of my knowledge, of which, of course, they had no idea, not wish to surprise them with it, or at least only out of love for them? They were as frisky and merry as children. They wandered through their beautiful groves and forests, they sang their beautiful songs, they fed on easy food, the fruit of their trees, the honey of their forests, and the milk of their beloved animals. For their food and for their clothing they labored only a little and lightly. They had love and children, but I never noticed in them the impulses of that cruel voluptuousness which befalls almost everyone on our earth, everyone and everything, and is the only source of almost all the sins of our mankind. They rejoiced in their children as new participants in their bliss. There was no quarreling or jealousy between them, and they did not even realize what it meant. Their children were the children of all, for all were one family.

They had almost no illnesses at all, though there was death; but their old men died quietly, as if falling asleep, surrounded by the people who were bidding them farewell, blessing them, smiling at them, and accompanied them by their bright smiles. I did not see any sorrow or tears, but only a love that multiplied as if to rapture; but a calm, replenished, contemplative rapture. One could think that they were still in contact with their dead even after their death and that the earthly unity between them was not interrupted by death. They almost did not understand me when I asked them about eternal life, but apparently they were so unaccountably convinced of it that it was not a question for them. They had no temples, but they had a vital, living, and uninterrupted union with the Whole of the universe; they had no faith, but they had the firm knowledge that when their earthly joy had been replenished to the limits of earthly nature, there would come for them, both for the living and the dead, a still greater extension of their contact with the Whole of the universe. They waited for this moment with joy, but not in a hurry, not suffering for it, but as if they already had it in the anticipations of their hearts, which they communicated to each other. In the evenings, when they were going to bed, they liked to form consonant and harmonious choruses. In these songs they conveyed all the feelings of the passing day, glorified it, and said goodbye to it.

They praised nature, the earth, the sea, the forests. They loved to write songs about each other and praised each other like children; they were the simplest songs, but they poured out of their hearts and penetrated their hearts. And not in songs alone, but it seemed that they spent their whole lives in admiring each other. It was a kind of love for each other, all-embracing, universal. Their other songs, solemn and rapturous, I hardly understood at all. While I understood the words, I could never penetrate into their meaning. It remained as if inaccessible to my mind, but my heart was penetrated by it unaccountably and more and more. I often told them that I had long before felt all this, that all this joy and glory had appeared to me on our land with an urgent longing, sometimes reaching unbearable sorrow; that I had felt all of them and their glory in the dreams of my heart and in the dreams of my mind, that I often could not look, on our land, at the setting sun without tears…. That in my hatred for the people of our land was always a longing—why can I not hate them without loving them? Why can I not forgive them, and in my love for them a longing—why can I not love them without hating them? They listened to me, and I saw that they could not imagine what I was saying, but I was not sorry to tell them; I knew that they understood the full force of my longing for those whom I had forsaken. Yes, when they looked at me with their sweet, loving gaze, when I felt that in their presence, and my heart became as innocent and true as their hearts, I was not sorry that I did not understand them. The feeling of fullness of life took my breath away, and I prayed silently for them.

Oh, everyone now laughs in my face and assures me that it is impossible to see in a dream such details as I now relay, that in my dream I saw or felt only one sensation generated by my own heart in delirium, and that I had just made up the details myself when I awoke. And when I told them that it might have been so, God, how they laughed in my face, and what amusement I gave them! Oh yes, of course, I was defeated by only one sensation of that dream, and it alone survived in my bleeding heart—but the actual images and forms of my dream, that is, those which I actually saw at the very hour of my dream, were filled up with such harmony, were so charming and beautiful, and so true, that when I awoke, I was certainly unable to translate them into our feeble words, so that they must have become as if stifled in my mind, and indeed, perhaps, I myself, unconsciously, may have been forced to compose the details afterwards, and certainly to distort them, especially when I was so eager to convey them as soon as possible and at least as much as possible.

But how can I not believe it all happened? A thousand times better, brighter and happier than I’m telling you? It may have been a dream, but it couldn’t have happened. You know, I’ll tell you a secret—it may not have been a dream at all! For something happened here, something so terribly true that it could not have been dreamt. My heart may have given birth to my dream, but could my heart alone have given birth to the awful truth which then happened to me? How could I alone have invented it, or could I have dreamed it with my heart? Could my shallow heart and my capricious, petty mind have risen to such a revelation of truth! Oh, judge for yourselves: I have hitherto concealed it, but now I will also tell this truth. The fact is that I have corrupted them all!

V

Yes, yes, it ended in my corrupting them all! How this could have been accomplished—I do not know, I do not remember clearly. The dream passed through the millennia and left me with only a sense of the whole. I only know that I was the cause of the fall into sin. Like a foul trichina, like a plague atom infecting whole nations, so I infected all this happy, sinless earth before me. They learned to lie and loved lies and knew the beauty of lying. Oh, it may have begun innocently, with a joke, with coquetry, with a love-play, indeed, perhaps with an atom, but that atom of lying penetrated their hearts and took a liking to it. Then quickly voluptuousness was born; voluptuousness gave birth to jealousy; jealousy gave birth to cruelty…. Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember, but soon, very soon the first blood spurted—they were surprised and horrified, and began to separate, to divide. Alliances were formed, but against each other. They began to rebuke and reproach. They recognized shame and raised shame into a virtue. The notion of honor was born, and each alliance raised its banner. They began to torture animals, and the animals went away from them into the forests and became their enemies. The struggle for separation, for isolation, for identity, for mine and thine began. They began to speak different languages.

They knew sorrow and loved sorrow; they longed for torment and said that the Truth is only attained by torment. Then science appeared to them. When they became evil, they began to speak of brotherhood and humanity and realized these ideas. When they became criminal, they invented justice and prescribed for themselves whole codes to preserve it; and to enforce the codes they put up the guillotine. They little but remembered what they had lost, did not even want to believe that they had once been innocent and happy. They laughed even at the possibility of this former happiness of theirs and called it a dream. They could not even imagine it in forms and images; but, strange and wonderful thing—having lost all faith in the former happiness, calling it a fairy tale, they so much wanted to be innocent and happy again that they fell before the desire of their heart like children, deified this desire, built temples and began to pray to their own idea, their own “desire,” at the same time quite believing in the impracticability and unattainability of it, but with tears adoring it and worshipping it. And yet, if only it could happen that they could return to that innocent and happy state which they had lost, and if someone suddenly showed it to them again and asked them whether they wanted to return to it—they would probably refuse.

They answered me: “We may be false, wicked and unjust; we know it and weep for it, and we torment ourselves for it, and we torture ourselves and punish ourselves more than even, perhaps, that merciful Judge who will judge us and whose name we do not know. But we have science, and through it we will find the truth again, but we will accept it consciously. Knowledge is higher than feeling; consciousness of life is higher than life. Science will give us wisdom; wisdom will reveal the laws, and knowledge of the laws of happiness—beyond happiness.” This is what they said, and after these words each one loved himself more than anyone else, and they could not do otherwise. Everyone became so jealous of his own personality that he tried his best only to humiliate and diminish it in others, and in that he based his life. There was slavery, even voluntary slavery—the weak submitted willingly to the strongest, only so that they helped them to crush the even weaker than they themselves. The righteous came to these people in tears and told them of their pride, their loss of measure and harmony, their loss of shame. They were mocked or stoned. Holy blood was poured on the thresholds of the temples. But people began to appear, who began to think of ways to unite everyone again in such a way that everyone could love himself more than everyone else, but at the same time not interfere with anyone else, and thus live together as if in a harmonious society.

Whole wars were fought over this idea. All those at war firmly believed at the same time that science, wisdom and a sense of self-preservation would finally make man unite into a coherent and reasonable society; and therefore, for the time being, in order to speed things up, the “wise” tried to exterminate as soon as possible all the “unwise” and those who did not understand their idea, so that they would not interfere with its triumph. But the sense of self-preservation began to weaken quickly, and there appeared proud and lustful people who demanded everything or nothing. To acquire everything they resorted to villainy, and if it failed—to suicide. Religions appeared with the cult of nothingness, and self-destruction for the sake of eternal rest in nothingness. Finally, these people became tired of meaningless labor, and suffering appeared on their faces, and these people proclaimed that suffering is beauty, for in suffering there is only thought. They sang of suffering in their songs. I walked among them, wringing my hands, and wept over them, but I loved them, perhaps even more than before, when there was no suffering on their faces and when they were innocent and so beautiful. I loved their defiled earth even more than when it was paradise, for the mere fact that grief had appeared on it. Alas, I have always loved sorrow and grief, but only for myself, for myself, and for them I wept, pitying them. I stretched out my hands to them, blaming, cursing, and despising myself in despair.

*****

I told them that I did it all; I alone. That it was I who brought corruption, contagion, and lies to them! I begged them to crucify me on the cross; I taught them how to make the cross. I could not, I was not able to kill myself, but I wanted to take the torment from them; I longed for the torment; I longed that in this torment my blood should be spilled to the drop. But they only laughed at me, and at the end of it they considered me a fool. They justified me; they said that they had received only what they themselves wished for, and that all that is now could not but be. At last, they declared to me that I was becoming a danger to them, and that they would put me in a madhouse if I did not keep silent. Then grief entered my soul with such force that my heart constricted, and I felt that I was going to die, and then… well, that’s when I woke up.

It was already morning; that is, it had not yet dawned, but it was about six o’clock. I woke up in the same chair, my candle burned out. The captain was asleep, and there was a rare silence in our apartments. The first thing I did was to jump up in extreme surprise; never had anything like this happened to me, even in a trivial way—never yet had I, for instance, fallen asleep like this in my chair. Then suddenly, while I was standing and coming to myself—suddenly my revolver flashed before me, ready, loaded—but I pushed it away from me in an instant! Oh, now life, life! I raised my hands and cried to the eternal truth; not cried aloud with words, but wept; rapture, immeasurable rapture lifted my whole being. Yes, life, and—preaching! I made up my mind about preaching that very minute, and certainly for my entire life! I am going to preach. I want to preach what? The truth, for I have seen it. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have seen all its glory!

And I’ve been preaching ever since! Besides, I love everyone who laughs at me more than anyone else. Why this is so, I do not know and cannot explain it, but let it be so. They say that I am going astray now; that is, if I am going astray now, what will happen next? The truth is true—I am going astray, and maybe it will get worse. And, of course, I will go astray several times while I am trying to find how to preach; that is, with what words and what deeds, because it is very difficult to fulfill it. I see it all now as if it were a day, but listen to me—who does not lose his way! And in the meantime, everyone goes after the same thing; at least everyone strives for the same thing, from the wise man to the last robber, but by different roads. This is an old truth, but what is new is this—I cannot go astray, because I have seen the truth. I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the ability to live on earth. I don’t want and I can’t believe that evil is a normal state of people. And they all laugh at this belief of mine. But how can I not believe—I have seen the truth; not that I invented it with my mind, but I have seen it. I have seen it, and its living image has filled my soul forever. I have seen it in such a replenished wholeness that I cannot believe that men cannot have it.

So, how can I lose my way? I will slip up, of course, even a few times, and I will speak even, perhaps, in someone else’s words, but not for long—the living image of what I have seen will always be with me and will always correct and guide me. Oh, I am awake. I am fresh. I keep going, I keep going, and at least for a thousand years. You know, I wanted even to conceal at first that I had corrupted them all, but that was a mistake—that was the first mistake! But the truth whispered to me that I was lying, and guarded me and guided me. But how to bring about heaven—I do not know, because I do not know how to put it into words. After my dream I lost words. At least, all the main words, the most necessary ones. But not to worry—I will go and say everything, unceasingly, because I have seen with my own eyes, though I cannot retell what I have seen. But this is what the mockers do not understand: “A dream,” they say, “I saw, a delusion, a hallucination.” Oh, is that supposed to be so clever? And they are so proud! A dream? What is a dream? Isn’t our life a dream? Let it never come true; let it never come true, and let there be no paradise (for I already understand that!), but I will still preach. And yet it is so simple—one day, one hour—everything will be settled at once! The main thing is to love others as yourself; that’s the main thing, and that’s all; nothing else is needed—you will find a way to settle down immediately. But in the meantime, it is only an old truth, which has been repeated and read a billion times, but it has not managed to get along! “Consciousness of life is higher than life. Knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness”—that’s what you have to fight against! And I will. If only everyone wanted to, everything would be settled now.

*****

And that little girl I found. And I’ll go on! I’ll go on!


Featured: A screenshot from the animated film, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1992), directed by Aleksandr Petrov.


A Matter of Honor: An Interview with Clement Scholivé

French novelist, Clement Scholivé, was interviewed recently by The Postil. His latest novel is not only intriguing but also fast-paced, with a quirky style. This is reflected perfectly by the title and cover: Comme des Espions de Dieu (As if We were God’s Spies) published, in France by Piranha. The cover features a biker embossed on a Templar or Crusader Cross.

The Postil (TP): This is your first novel, I believe. You are what the French call a “primo-romancier.” Besides the cover which appealed to me as a specialist of the Crusades, I got interested because the novel is set at the Ecole normale supérieure, France’s intellectual elite school, of which, I am happy to say, some of The Postil’s contributors are alumni. Very odd locale for a spy-thriller-trafficking-conspiracy novel. Unusual. Are you an alumnus?

Ecole Normale Supérieure, busts of famous alumni

Clement Scholivé (CS): No, I am not. But two of my close friends are. They call it “L’Ecole.” Full stop. Very proud of it, but they never throw it in your face, unlike some who bash on about this or that college. But, yeah, the whole set up at l’Ecole is rendered pretty accurately, although I had to adapt it, because the novel covers about eighty years of recent history.

TP: Another setting is a British business school you locate in Fontainebleau. It is new, brash, all mods and cons, in keeping with globalized design. Schools, universities I mean, fascinate you. They form the backbone of the novel, don’t they?

CS: Their—how can I put it—their cruelty fascinates me. Their lust for power also. Their ability (I am talking about the top ones) for surviving through the ages. Regimes come and go. They endure. Some go back nearly two thousand years. I try to use that to my own ends.

TP: And London clubland? It plays quite a role in the novel, too. Your description of the spy ridden, covert manoeuvring in an unnamed Pall Mall club makes for riveting reading. You plunge your readers into it, headlong.

CS: I had fun piecing it together from several sources. I hope I did not make it too satirical. Or theatrical. In fact…

(silence)

TP: In fact…?

CS: Well, I can’t give away the plot, can I? Let’s say that I see education like a Shakespearian theatre. Not “all’s world is a stage,” that’s comedy, but what happens backstage; that’s where the action is. Unis, clubs are prime sites for observing the human comedy unfold.

TP: In fact, the title Comme des Espions de Dieu is a famous line from King Lear.

CS: It is. But I nearly chose a quote from General Patton’s war poem, “darkly the age long strife I see.” Too long. But reads well in French.

TP: A propos, you are bilingual, you wrote your novel in French, why not in English?

(He laughs)

CS: Simply because I had a publisher, and a good one, and he is French. What more do you want!

TP: Touché. Piranha published it in their “noir” series. Now, is it a spy novel? A thriller? About murders and suicides spiced up by blackmail? A conspiracist novel? An insider’s version of European secret wars since the 1930s? A personal Bildungsroman? Noir, really?

CS: Well, the cover is noir, is it not? Joking aside, I really did not write it to fit into any genre. Nor am I into using novel-writing to prove points. I wanted to tell a story about the transmission of values, to paint a picture of fidelity to an ideal, passed from father or mother to son, and from spiritual father, a mentor, to spiritual son, and to recount how bright young things are prepped and channelled toward a secret, yet rich life at the service of that ideal. And how they come to value the sacred knot of friendship. How they are trained also to become inconspicuous while they would expect to get the top jobs and shine, and drive an Aston Martin, and all the rest of it. But they accept to remain discrete, to disappear, to become transparent.

TP: Still, Comme des Espions de Dieu can be read as a dramatic fresco about the glories and miseries of libido sciendi, libido sentiendi and libido dominandi, all tied up. I refer to Saint Augustine’s theory of domination, through knowledge, sex and seduction, and power.

CS: Gosh, Saint Augustine, who would have thought? Above my pay grade. But yes, the characters are smart, they are raunchy, they plot and connive. For sure, they’ve got plenty libido.

TP: Still, you are well read, and it shows. You quote the Classics, but I must say—on cue.

CS: Some quote Bob Dylan. I quote Goethe. Each to their own. I don’t pretend. Hope not.

TP: Quite. You don’t pretend. Now, you describe how four young men get recruited, and then intellectually trained by their mentor George. It can be physical, too. I think of that brilliant Norwegian MBA graduate who is subjected to commando training. The episode of his solo, as you call it, in Hong Kong is epic. You located it at the famous Foreign Correspondents’ Club. You’ve been there?

CS: Of course. I call it the CCE. I write about what I know first hand. Reality matters in fiction.

The author at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, as in a celebrated scene from Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy.

TP: Back to what pricked my curiosity. The cover shows a biker roaring forward, as if racing out of a red Templar cross. Odd combination.

CS: Think so?

TP: You tell me.

CS: My favourite character is not the prominent, in your face one, George, but his long-time school mate, a Communist who had gone though all the illusions and disillusions of decaying Marxism, from the 1980s onward. The guy is passionate and ascetic. As a young man, his handler could not control him. He…

(CS hesitates, looks away, and at my phone recording our conversation)

TP: He…?

TP: I knew someone like him in Paris, at college. Lycée actually. We were boarders. He was pure. Young communist. He died pure. He was, since you mentioned the word Templar, he was a red Templar. Let’s leave it at that (a silence). Sorry, I get emotional thinking of him. He was a biker. Rode a Ducati.

TP: You depict, with sensitivity, a range of quite realistic characters: domineering elders, British business men and global power women, bright young things as you call them, two elderly ladies (what a pair!) who run a bookstore of sorts, a Polish linguist who gives appointments in Parisian bath houses, a sarcastic French commissaire specialized in money laundering by varsities—Depardieu would play him well—and young misfits, lost souls, rebels used and abused, craving for love, in a society that does not actually care for them. But George does. He cares.

Spymaster Jack Devine’s memoirs autographed for George Simmel.

CS: Does he? He recruits them; that is what he is tasked with. He himself was recruited, by a woman. In Munich.

TP: Quite right. It is a juicy part.

CS: Glad you like it. But, for me, no one is a reject. Problem is that society today cares by default, not by design, of those who fall by the wayside. They get forced into pre-assigned slots of fake compassion. Managed charity. Even their freedom to fall from grace is denied its own unique character. But, that’s taking us away from the story, the plot and all that.

TP: I wonder. In the novel George learns to care.

CS: The harsh way, yes. Look, I leave it to George who is a professor of strategy anyway; that’s his cover, to elaborate on ideas. He does, I mean, he reflects, when he wants out. When he doubts, he is doing right. When people suffer. When the unexpected happens.

TP: As in the near epiphanic dialogue, in Paris’ Allées du Luxembourg, between him and an American newbie, who has just …

CS: Spoiler alert!

(We laugh)

TP: Let’s stay with George Simmel. He recruits and mentors, and we witness his deft craftwork in detail. He is implacable. Is he real?

CS: No, he is not. I mean, your first point—he prises open recruits by allowing them to “let it out,” because he has to see if they’ve got what it takes, but he never treats them like expendable commodities. He has empathy, but no need to show it. Second point, yes, he is real. But he could be standing there (he points to the bar) you would not notice him. He blends in.

TP: A different tack, to end our conversation. Mothers and fathers matter in your story. And they are formidable. What a character, in both senses of the word is his mother, Adélaïde. That old lady knows the game.

CS: Sure. She has seen it all since the 1950s. Women are silent observers. I like them. At least those I know, and try to portray. Yeah, filial devotion is important to me, and for George, and in the novel. Fidelity to kin and friends.

TP: Why?

CS: Living one’s life is a matter of honor. Honor matters.


Featured: King Lear, by Benjamin West; painted in 1788.


As if We were God’s Spies

Through the kind courtesy of Piranha, we are happy to provide the following excerpts from Clement Scholivé’s novel, Comme des Espions de Dieu (As if We were God’s Spies).

The short excerpts that follow have been adapted and translated from the French—avoiding spoilers. Make sure to read our interview with the author.

From the Prologue, 1

London, December 22, late in the afternoon. George Simmel, a professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, ENS, and at the SOAL Foundation in Fontainebleau, France, had trouble leaving St Pancras station. A police crime scene tape marked the spot where a bomb had exploded, early that morning, at the first-class coach level. Fortunately, the Eurostar had been delayed. No one thought of thanking the migrants who had lost their way into the Eurotunnel on the French side. They avoided the worst. The damage was trivial. He bypassed the bored police cordon, waved to his driver holding a “SOAL” sign and they sped off to his club, the Club, in St James’s.

The Club was unobtrusively discreet, even though or because it was located at the very heart of deep power. No flag on the façade, unlike others. A greying, Ghanaian bellboy on the porch and three narrow steps leading to a modest-looking glazed door, a trompe-l’oeil given the munificence of the interior—a vast hall with its three floors of interior galleries, served by a monumental staircase, supported by red marble columns and topped by a dome from 1900, under which immense ornamental palm trees, a gift by a Maharaja, had breathed the smoke of cigars for a hundred years, and survived the ordeal. George Simmel went down to the cloakroom, opened his closet bearing a little ivory plate engraved with his name, and collected his evening suit. He went upstairs to his chamber to rest a bit, shower and change. A talk was scheduled for that evening, with Baroness Hathaway, the former head of MI5.

George Simmel was not in his normal state. He was tired due to a series of events that had brought him to London, via Jersey. The averted St Pancras bombing was a further irritation. People here and in Paris would not fail to ask him, “If…,” and “If”—and then, “You are lucky!” As if he had any inside information. Who was the target. “You were at Helen’s talk? Very, very timely! Very strange!” People always rush to assumptions. Instead of thinking, first. And shutting up, second.

In fact, he was deeply distressed by the unexpected death of his oldest friend from high school, whom at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and afterwards at Ecole Normale Supérieure, everyone called by his family name, Védrin, never Jean, always Védrin. As he struggled with his bow tie, he noticed in the mirror that he was dressed in black, as for a funeral. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and suddenly, just like that, God knows for what reason, reasonable reason that is, he sobbed. Like a child.

For the second time that day.

From Part II. Chapter I, 1

About six months before, in early July, at SOAL-Fontainebleau, George had subjected a prospective student to the ritual of the interview, a seemingly colorless and odorless conversation after a three-hour psychological and behavioral test. The young ENS graduate wore a fashionable Zara short sleeve shirt, but not too flashy, sensible chino rolled up on his ankles. He was manspreading, in rope sandals. Short reddish hair, “Venetian blonde” would have said Adélaïde, George’s mother. And she did.

Claus Bronn had made the tedious journey from Paris to Fontainebleau in sweltering weather, by suburban Transilien train, then by city bus and finally boarding a SOAL shuttle, all the way from the capital’s 5th arrondissement to the Domaine de Beaumont, next to Fontainebleau Forest and the river Seine. On a Sunday.

During the interview, George had tried to avoid looking at a scar the student had on his face. His nose, broken just below the bridge, showed a fierce dent between the eyes. Rugby? A graduate of elite Napoleonic ENS, and a rugby player. Rare combination. Yes, right there on the medical report: “Physical: Top shape. AAA.”

The interview concluded with Claus’ enrollment in the cross-disciplinary doctoral stream of tough-to-get-in Leadership Programme of SOAL-ENS. He agreed with the terms of study and signed the MoU.

The package included a summer internship, assisting George with a project on dematerialized soft power strategies.

“It’s up to you to check that sources are state-of-the-art, to fill in the statistical gaps and data, add tables and graphs; in short to reference fully the article which, for the moment, is just a narrative. I need the quantitative. For revenue journals. You are a mathematician; you know how to do it. But above all, and I know, I know you have declined a choice place at the Ecole Polytechnique. Yes, yes, I know; preferring, I read here, “the humanistic aspect of numbers.” Cute. You will be credited as second author. When I stretch it into a book, or a primer. You’ll get 5% up to five thousand copies sold. Above that, 9%. SOAL will pay you an advance, now. Three thousand euros. That’s our Growing Own Timber project. Are you okay with that?”

“Absolutely.”

“Very well. Sign the codicil. Bonus, Claus: if you like it, I’ll put you up in a place, a nice barn I’ve got in the Pyrenees, all expenses paid, to work in total peace. Deal?”

Hard to refuse.

George had then watched the young man stride confidently across the Lawn, acid green in the summer sun. He had observed how Claus had paused to take in the harmonious line-up of the Foundation buildings, in the deserted silence of that summery Sunday, when the hundred or so students had left for the weekend. George saw how the talented mathematician had sized up the place, reducing it to an equation, surely. Mother will like him.

From Part I. Chapter III, 2

George was sitting outside a café in Rue de Bretagne, in Paris’ Temple district, reading the Iliad in the sun. A young guy was parking his motorcycle, a big, red Ducati, and bumped slightly against his table. Taking off his helmet, the lad immediately apologized:

“I’m sorry, so sorry, Sir.”

“No problem. It shines like hell.”

The young biker repeated, “like hell,” and added:

“Can I buy you a drink, Sir, just to… you are…”

George raised his hand and pointed to a chair:

“SOAL, security guard?”

“Yes, Sir. At the aquarium.”

“Uh huh.”

“Weird, at SOAL, we’ve never spoken to each other.”

“We have. ‘Sir? Right thumb, press hard, for opening.’ Sir.”

Samuel burst out laughing. He became talkative, George recalled. The lad may have had a joint. He belonged to the XYZ+ young proletariat with no future and no past, who are surprised by nothing and are surprised by a nothing. Emotionally wired 24/7. Harmless and a mess. Errant dog, looking for collar.

Who’s paying for that bike? wondered George. Change of tack:

“Does it take you a long time, every night, anyway, to undo your piercings. If you do? Samuel.”

The first name calling took Samuel by surprise.

“Okay,” was his reply.

George ordered a Stella for him and a Perrier for himself. The line was cast. A year later the biker had vanished. And George was summoned at the Club by Sir Avery, president of SOAL, “for a good chat.”

From Part II, Chapter VI, 2

SOAL Chief Compliance Officer Hilb arrived fresh as a clavelito at Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza airport, took a limo to the microcenter of the city, and got dropped off at his favorite café, Confiteria Ideal, set between sellers of thrice-used books, milliners’ shops yellowed by the sun, and a large screen porn cinema. At the Ideal, Hilb sat up against a large brown marble pillar set with gilded sconces. He smoothed the red tablecloth with the back of his hand. The pastries were in the centre of the huge, tiled room, on a monumental, baroque sideboard, on parade. It was ten o’clock, no customers, the low point of the morning. He ordered a cortado and medialunas.

He had an appointment with Newton. Cradle name, Noah. Immigration name, Newton. Abbreviation Newt. Born, like Hilb, in the 9th arrondissement, Rue Cadet, Jewish quarter, Paris. Volunteered together in the Six-Day War. Then, specialists in the use of electric devices.

Newt was now “in the building industry.” He had the mystique of the construction industry. On a previous occasion, when they nearly fell out with each other:

“Do you remember what the rabbi used to tell us at school? ‘In Hebrew, my children, “child” and “builder” are homonyms. Homonyms, you know what that means?”… Guy Chouraqui, the poof, didn’t know where to hide. What a laugh! And the rabbi: ‘Evil spirits that you are, a homonym is a word that resembles another… And you know why they’re homonyms in Hebrew? Because a child, by going to school, by being educated, builds the real house, the building of peace… Ah, Shalom… Peace… What a beautiful noun, my children, it is the combination of sacred numbers…’ He could not switch off. Off his rockers. Needed no electricity to power him. That’s what building is all about.”

Diversion, anyway, all that chatter. Not today, not today.

Holà, Pierre! Holà, Newt!”

Newt managed to squeeze himself into the armchair, pulled up his glasses with his thumb, a twitch that had always annoyed Hilb; it had to do with Hilb’s sister, and remained silent. Newt stared at Hilb with a look that was not very kind. Hilb decided not to talk about past differences—that deal about a SOAL school in Buenos Aires gone south. He went straight to the point.

“Come a little closer and listen. We’re going to have to move fast. Bissel of a shlep. But shekel tango, I promise.”

“Like last time?”

“Listen, no frigging building and all that crap. Listen to me, then you decide. I have not flown in from Paris just to drink coffee, and tell you I love you, hey? You just have to dress like a Brazilian tourist. You take your cut, at source. Toi-même.”

“Tu m’intéresses.”

From Part III. Chapter II, 1

Between Christmas and New Year, the Surveyor had allowed himself time for musing. The operation had “foreclosed,” as it was now trendy to say in the minister’s youngish, inner circle. But, with his head bent over his personal copy of the file, and supported as usual by three fingers of the left hand, thumb, index and middle finger, he meditated.

He mused about the irony of his fate, seated at his usual canteen, Rue des Saussaies, neither too close nor too far from the Interior Ministry, located there since the times of Napoleon’s police HQ. He sat, alone in the dining room, at his familiar banquette, the one with a broken spring. The duck confit had seen better days. A left over from Christmas. Like me, he mused, like me.

He opened a paper clip and unfolded it, then folded it back, then twisted it. He discarded it in the ashtray, symbols of a bygone era: paper clip and cigarette. I’m like a paper clip. Like a paper clip in this useless ashtray. But I have my file.

He looked at two cryptic notes he had jotted down on two purple post-its, stuck on the last sheet, and inscribed: “acc, so true.” He pondered the amusing irony of breaking an iron rule of the service, NPC, No Personal Copy, at a stone’s throw from the Tracfin office, a file foreclosed as the bright sparks say. He discreetly chewed an antacid tablet, so as not to offend Lucien, the patron.

Who would have guessed this high-ranking career police civil servant, nicknamed the Surveyor; Charles Fourcadet had reached the end of his tether. The complex affair of varsity money-laundering, now declared foreclosed, whatever that meant, had taken the best of five long years of careful, and inventive, scoping. Academia is tricky and deceitful, and smart, very smart. Worse than gun runners. He was about to wrap it up, and nab them all, and then remind the minister he was now ready to move on and up, since like a damn fool he had delayed a nice end-of -career promotion to close that juicy file, not to bloody foreclose it! Snuffed before the media would get a whiff of it. And that was surprising since the bright sparks leaked like a used condom.

He, who had led the operation from day one, was made to carry the can for all these years of wasted public money and so-called “scarce human resources,” as if that was ever an issue. He was in charge, until la Dutour, Madame Rector, barged in, George Simmel’s ex—can you believe it—took over, reshuffled the deck, and c’est fini, c’est la vie. Why her? Mind you, academic Mata Hari or not, she had form. If you see what I mean.

Nothing surprised him any longer. Time to take early retirement, in fact. They hinted at it. He took the hint. But how and why he would take it, that was his business. That is why he mused, and not why he had acid reflux.

He meditated on the irony of another fate. That of De Kemp, his penetration agent. That prick, slippery to handle, demanding like a tart, an addict to boot, “for my painful joints’” why yes, of course, your joints. Paid for under the table. For sure he impressed his colleagues at that second-rate university where we gave him a job, with his super frigging SUV. Father is well off. Antwerp. Diamond trade. We had a good laugh. Green grocer in Besançon. Got his comeuppance, though. The hard way. That kid, Victor, tough as nails. Should have followed his tracks. Collateral anyway. But…

The Surveyor picked up the twisted paper clip and was tempted to light a gauloise, just pour emmerder Lucien and his rotten duck confit from Hungary. He pushed aside the file.

For—and the Surveyor looked at the sad leg of confit—in all the driftwood that De Kemp was sending downstream, flotsam and jetsam of information of all sorts, Charles Fourcadet had flagged indicators that a second-level electronic wall of defense, as invisible as it was fierce, seemed to ringfence SOAL, while the front wall was agreeably permeable; not easy, for sure, but it consented to penetration. He had wisely omitted it from his verbal and filed notes and from the final report, of course, the moment he had sensed that the rug was being pulled underneath him by Mata Hari. Something else was cooking.

Now, taking the hint, he had decided to capitalize, and from civil servant to become civilly self-serving. Unlike all those military windbags who retire and lecture the free world on what should be done in the Ukraine or with the Taliban, while they did nothing when they could. He had decided not to take a dump in a think-tank, but to quietly re-invest his skills and expertise. And, in two short months, on March 1st, with full pension rights, and the blue rosette of Merit on his lapel, he was going to walk across to SOAL and join the opposition, whatever that may be.

He stood up, left fifty euros and, with a smile, added the pack of antacids.


The Battle of Sempach

Robert Walser (1878-1956) is regarded as one of the most influential writers of the modern era whose work has had a wide impact. However, during his lifetime he was largely ignored and struggled with poverty all his life, which resulted in a mental breakdown in 1929; he spent the remainder of hus life in insitiutions and anonymity. His work was rediscovered in the 1970s. The Battle of Sempach was published in Berlin, in 1908. It describes the deed of the Swiss legendary hero, Arnold von Winkelried, whose self-less deed brought victory to the Swiss confederates over Austria at the Battle of Sempach.

One day, in the middle of a hot summer, an army column slowly made its way along the dust-covered country road into the Lucerne region. The bright, actually more than bright, sun glared down on the dancing armor, on armor that covered human bodies, on dancing steeds, on helmets and bits of faces, on horses’ heads and tails, on ornaments and plumes and stirrups that were as big as snowshoes.

Meadows with thousands of fruit trees spread out to the right and left of the gleaming procession, up to the hills that waved and looked like softly and carefully painted decorations from the blue-scented, half-blurred distance.

It was an oppressive heat in the morning, a meadow heat, a grass, hay and dust heat, for dust was thrown up like thick clouds that sometimes wanted to envelop pieces and parts of the army. The heavy cavalcade moved forward, sluggishly, ploddingly and carelessly; it at times resembled a long, iridescent snake, at times a lizard of immense size, at times a large piece of cloth, richly embroidered with figures and colorful shapes and solemnly trailed, just as ladies, especially elderly and imperious ones, are accustomed to trailing trains.

In the whole manner of this army, in the stomping and clanking, in this sober, beautiful rattling, there was a single “Because of me” attitude, something cheeky, something very confident, something overpowering, something lazily pushed aside. All these knights conversed with each other, as best they could through their steely mouths, in a cheerful exchange of words; laughter rang out and this sound fitted in perfectly with the bright sound made by the weapons and chains and golden pendants. The morning sun still seemed to caress many a plate and fine metal, the sounds of pipes flew up to the sun; now and then one of the many servants on foot handed his riding master a delicate morsel, stuck on a silver fork, up to the swaying saddle.

Wine was drunk fleetingly, poultry was eaten and non-edible food was spat out, with a light, carefree disposition, for it was not a serious, chivalrous war, it was a matter of punishment, of breeding, of bloody, mocking, theatrical things; so everyone thought; and everyone could already see the mass of severed heads that were to color the meadow bloody. Among the warlords were many a wonderful young nobleman in splendid clothes, sitting on horseback like a manly angel flown down from the blue, uncertain sky. Some of them had made themselves comfortable and handed their helmets to a defiant boy to wear, thus showing the open air a strangely beautiful face marked by innocence and exuberance.

The latest jokes were told and the latest stories of gallant women were discussed. Those who remained serious were considered the best; a thoughtful expression seemed to be considered indecent and unchivalrous that day. The hair of the young men, who had taken off their helmets, shone and smelled of ointments and oil and fragrant water, which they had poured on themselves as if they were riding to a flirtatious lady to sing charming songs to her. The hands, from which the iron gloves had been removed, did not look warlike, but rather well-groomed and pampered, narrow and white like the hands of young girls.

One man alone in the frenzied procession was serious. Even his appearance, a deep black suit of armor interspersed with delicate gold, indicated what the man it covered was thinking. It was the noble Duke Leopold of Austria. This man did not speak a word; he seemed completely absorbed in anxious thoughts. His face looked like that of a man who is being bothered by a pesky fly around his eye. This fly must have been his evil foreboding, for a perpetual contemptuous, sad smile played about his mouth; he kept his head bowed. The whole earth, as cheerful as it looked, seemed to him to roll and thunder angrily. Or was it only the trampling thunder of horses’ hoofs, as they were now passing a wooden bridge over the Reuss? In any case, something ominous wove eerily around the Duke’s figure.


The army stopped near the little town of Sempach; it was now about two o’clock in the afternoon. Perhaps it was even three o’clock; the knights did not care what time it was; for their sake it might have been twenty o’clock: they would have found it all in order. They were already terribly bored, and found every slightest trace of martial measure ridiculous. It was a dull moment; it was like a mock maneuver, the way they now jumped out of their saddles to take up their positions. The laughter no longer wanted to resound; they had already laughed so much, a weariness, a yawn set in. Even the horses seemed to realize that all they could do now was yawn. The serving foot soldiers went after the remains of the food and wine, drinking and guzzling whatever was left to eat and drink. How ridiculous this whole campaign seemed to everyone! This ragtag town that was still defiant—how stupid it was!

Suddenly the call of a horn sounded in the terrible heat and boredom. A peculiar announcement that made a few more attentive ears prick up: What could be there? Listen. Again. There it sounded again. Yes. And you could have generally believed that this time it sounded less far away.

“All good things come in threes,” lisped a cheeky joker. “Sound again, horn!”

A while passed. They had become somewhat thoughtful; and now, all at once, terribly, as if the thing had got wings and was riding along on fiery monsters, flaming and screaming, it began once more, a long cry: “We’re coming!”

It was indeed as if an underworld had suddenly been given the air to break through the hard earth. The sound was like a dark abyss opening up and it seemed as if the sun were now shining down from a dark sky, even more glowing, even brighter, but as if from a hell, not a heaven.

People were still laughing even now; there are moments when people think they should smile while they feel gripped by horror. After all, the mood of an army of many people is not much different from the mood of a single, lonely person. The whole landscape in its brooding, whitish heat now only seemed to make more and more noise; it had become the sound of horns; and now, as if from an opening, the heap of people who had been preceded by the call immediately threw themselves into the sound space. Now the landscape no longer had a contour; sky and summery earth blurred into a solid; the season, which had disappeared, had become a place, a fencing ground, a warlike playground, a battlefield. In a battle, nature always perishes; the cube alone rules—the fabric of weapons, the heap of people and the other heap of people.

The throng of people rushing forward, apparently heated, came closer. And the knightly band was solid; they seemed to have suddenly merged together. Men of iron held out their lances so that one could have ridden a break-carriage over the lance bridge without breaking it; the knights were wedged in so tightly and lance after lance stabbed forward so stupidly, immovable, unshakeable, just something, one would have thought, for a pressing, rushing human breast to impale itself on. Here a stolid wall of lace; there people half covered with shirts. Here the art of war, of the most innate kind; there people seized by impotent rage.

Then one and then the other, boldly, in order to put an end to this disgusting displeasure, rushed into one of the spearheads, mad, crazy, thrown down by anger and rage. Onto the ground, of course, without even having hit the helmeted and feathered lout of iron with his hand weapon, bleeding miserably from the chest, rolling over, his face in the dusty horse droppings left behind by the noble steeds. So it was with all these almost unclothed men, while the lances, already reddened by the blood, seemed to smile mockingly.


No, that was nothing; on the side of man, one felt compelled to use a trick. When confronted with art, art became necessary, or some high thought; and this higher thought, in the shape of a man of high stature, came forward at once, strangely, as if advanced by a supernatural power, and spoke to his countrymen: “Take care of my wife and my children, I will make a lane for you;” and threw himself with lightning speed into four or five lances, so as not to weaken in his desire to sacrifice himself, and pulled down several more, as many as he could grasp while dying, to his chest, as if he could not embrace enough iron spikes and press them against him, so that he could really sink into the throng, and lay on the ground and had become a bridge for people who stepped on his body, on the high thought that just wanted to be stepped on.

Nothing will ever again resemble such a smashing as now the light mountain and valley men, pushed and lifted by the fury, smashed into the clumsy, wicked wall, and tore it apart and beat it to pieces, like tigers tearing apart a defenseless herd of cows. The knights were now almost completely defenseless, as they could hardly move to one side, wedged into their confines. Whoever was on horseback was thrown down like paper, so that it cracked like bags filled with air when they are smashed together between two hands. The weapons of the shepherds now proved terrible and their light clothing just right; the armor was all the more troublesome for the knights. Heads were grazed by blows; only seemed to be grazed but really had been bashed in. There was a constant thrashing; horses were overturned; the fury and strength increased; the Duke was killed; it would have been a miracle if he had not been killed. Those who struck shouted about it, as if it were the right thing to do, as if the killing was still too small a destruction, something only half done.

Heat, steam, the smell of blood, dirt and dust and the screaming and shouting mixed into a wild, hellish turmoil. The dying barely felt their deaths; they died so rapidly. They often suffocated in their boastful iron armor, these aristocratic flails. What good was an opinion now? Everyone would have gladly given a damn, if they could have given a damn at all. About a hundred beautiful noblemen drowned; no, drowned in the nearby Lake Sempach; they drowned because they were thrown into the water like cats and dogs; they tumbled over and rolled over in their elegant beak shoes; it was a real disgrace. The most splendid iron armor could only promise destruction and the realization of this premonition was terribly the right one.

What was the point of having a castle, land and people at home, somewhere in Aargau or Swabia, a beautiful wife, farmhands, maidservants, orchards, fields and forests, taxes and the finest privileges? That only made dying in these puddles, between the tightly drawn knee of a mad shepherd and a piece of ground, even more bitter and miserable. Of course, the magnificent steeds trampled their own masters in a wild flight; many gentlemen, too, in their haste to dismount, got caught in the stirrups with their stupid fashionable shoes, so that they kissed the meadows with the bleeding backs of their heads, while their terrified eyes, before they went out, saw the sky above them burning like a fierce flame. Of course, shepherds also collapsed, but for every naked and bare-chested one there were always ten covered and wrapped up in steel. The Battle of Sempach actually teaches us how terribly stupid it is to wrap oneself up like that. If they could have moved, these puppets—well, they would have moved; some of them did, as they had finally freed themselves from the most unbearable things they had on their bodies. “I fight with slaves, O the shame!” cried a handsome boy with yellowish curls streaming down from his head, and, struck in the dear face by a cruel blow, sank to the ground, where, wounded to death, he bit the grass with his half-shattered mouth. A few shepherds, who had lost their murder weapons from their hands, attacked their opponents from below with their necks and heads like wrestlers on the ring, or, dodging the blows, threw themselves on the necks of the knights and strangled them until they were choked off.


In the meantime, evening had fallen, the dying light glowed in the trees and bushes, while the sun sank between the dark foothills like a dead, beautiful, sad man. The grim battle had come to an end. The snow-white, pale Alps hung down their beautiful, cold foreheads in the background of the world. The dead were now being collected, and for this purpose they went about quietly, picking up the fallen men lying on the ground and carrying them to the mass grave that others had dug. Flags and armor were gathered together until it became a stately pile. Money and valuables, everything, was handed over to a certain place. Most of these simple, strong men had become quiet and good; they looked at the looted jewelry not without wistful contempt; walked around the meadows, looked into the faces of the slain and washed off blood where it tempted them to see what the guilty features might still look like.

Two young men with faces so young and bright, with lips still smiling in death, were found embraced on the ground at the foot of a bush. One of them had had his chest beaten in, the other had his body cut through. They had to work late into the night; then they searched with torches. They found Arnold von Winkelried and shuddered at the sight of his body. As the men buried him, they sang one of their simple songs in dark voices; there was no more pomp. There were no priests; what should one have done with priests? Praying and thanking the Lord God for the victory that had been won—that could be done without any ecclesiastical fuss. Then they went home. And after a few days they were scattered back to their high valleys, working, serving, farming, looking after the stores, doing what was necessary and sometimes saying a word about the battle they had experienced; not much. They were not celebrated (well, perhaps a little, in Lucerne at their entry). The days went by, for the days must have been harsh and rough even then, in 1386, with their manifold worries. A great deed does not erase the arduous succession of days. Life does not stand still for a long time on a battle day; history only takes a short break until it, too, has to hurry forward, urged on by imperious life.


Featured: Winkelried at Sempach, by Konrad Grob (1828-1904); date of the painting unknown.


The Emperor’s Vision

It happened at the time when Augustus was Emperor in Rome and Herod was King in Jerusalem.

It was then that a very great and holy night sank down over the earth. It was the darkest night that any one had ever seen. One could have believed that the whole earth had fallen into a cellar-vault. It was impossible to distinguish water from land, and one could not find one’s way on the most familiar road. And it couldn’t be otherwise, for not a ray of light came from heaven. All the stars stayed at home in their own houses, and the fair moon held her face averted.

The silence and the stillness were as profound as the darkness. The rivers stood still in their courses, the wind did not stir, and even the aspen leaves had ceased to quiver. Had any one walked along the sea-shore, he would have found that the waves no longer dashed upon the sands; and had one wandered in the desert, the sand would not have crunched under one’s feet. Everything was as motionless as if turned to stone, so as not to disturb the holy night. The grass was afraid to grow, the dew could not fall, and the flowers dared not exhale their perfume.

On this night the wild beasts did not seek their prey, the serpents did not sting, and the dogs did not bark. And what was even more glorious, inanimate things would have been unwilling to disturb the night’s sanctity, by lending themselves to an evil deed. No false key could have picked a lock, and no knife could possibly have drawn a drop of blood.

In Rome, during this very night, a small company of people came from the Emperor’s palace at the Palatine and took the path across the Forum which led to the Capitol. During the day just ended the Senators had asked the Emperor if he had any objections to their erecting a temple to him on Rome’s sacred hill. But Augustus had not immediately given his consent. He did not know if it would be agreeable to the gods that he should own a temple next to theirs, and he had replied that first he wished to ascertain their will in the matter by offering a nocturnal sacrifice to his genius. It was he who, accompanied by a few trusted friends, was on his way to perform this sacrifice.

Augustus let them carry him in his litter, for he was old, and it was an effort for him to climb the long stairs leading to the Capitol. He himself held the cage with the doves for the sacrifice. No priests or soldiers or senators accompanied him, only his nearest friends. Torch-bearers walked in front of him in order to light the way in the night darkness and behind him followed the slaves, who carried the tripod, the knives, the charcoal, the sacred fire, and all the other things needed for the sacrifice.

On the way the Emperor chatted gayly with his faithful followers, and therefore none of them noticed the infinite silence and stillness of the night. Only when they had reached the highest point of the Capitol Hill and the vacant spot upon which they contemplated erecting the temple, did it dawn upon them that something unusual was taking place.

It could not be a night like all others, for up on the very edge of the cliff they saw the most remarkable being! At first they thought it was an old, distorted olive-trunk; later they imagined that an ancient stone figure from the temple of Jupiter had wandered out on the cliff. Finally it was apparent to them that it could be only the old sibyl.

Anything so aged, so weather-beaten, and so giantlike in stature they had never seen. This old woman was awe-inspiring! If the Emperor had not been present, they would all have fled to their homes.

“It is she,” they whispered to each other, “who has lived as many years as there are sand-grains on her native shores. Why has she come out from her cave just to-night? What does she foretell for the Emperor and the Empire—she, who writes her prophecies on the leaves of the trees and knows that the wind will carry the words of the oracle to the person for whom they are intended?”

They were so terrified that they would have dropped on their knees with their foreheads pressed against the earth, had the sibyl stirred. But she sat as still as though she were lifeless. Crouching upon the outermost edge of the cliff, and shading her eyes with her hand, she peered out into the night. She sat there as if she had gone up on the hill that she might see more clearly something that was happening far away. She could see things on a night like this!

At that moment the Emperor and all his retinue, marked how profound the darkness was. None of them could see a hand’s breadth in front of him. And what stillness! What silence! Not even the Tiber’s hollow murmur could they hear. The air seemed to suffocate them, cold sweat broke out on their foreheads, and their hands were numb and powerless. They feared that some dreadful disaster was impending.

But no one cared to show that he was afraid, and every one told the Emperor that this was a good omen. All Nature held its breath to greet a new god.

They counseled Augustus to hurry with the sacrifice, and said that the old sibyl had evidently come out of her cave to greet his genius.

But the truth was that the old sibyl was so absorbed in a vision that she did not even know that Augustus had come up to the Capitol. She was transported in spirit to a far-distant land, where she imagined that she was wandering over a great plain. In the darkness she stubbed her foot continually against something, which she believed to be grass-tufts. She stooped down and felt with her hand. No, it was not grass, but sheep. She was walking between great sleeping flocks of sheep.

Then she noticed the shepherds’ fire. It burned in the middle of the field, and she groped her way to it. The shepherds lay asleep by the fire, and beside them were the long, spiked staves with which they defended their flocks from wild beasts. But the little animals with the glittering eyes and the bushy tails that stole up to the fire, were they not jackals? And yet the shepherds did not fling their staves at them, the dogs continued to sleep, the sheep did not flee, and the wild animals lay down to rest beside the human beings.

This the sibyl saw, but she knew nothing of what was being enacted on the hill back of her. She did not know that there they were raising an altar, lighting charcoal and strewing incense, and that the Emperor took one of the doves from the cage to sacrifice it. But his hands were so benumbed that he could not hold the bird. With one stroke of the wing, it freed itself and disappeared in the night darkness.

When this happened, the courtiers glanced suspiciously at the old sibyl. They believed that it was she who caused the misfortune.

Could they know that all the while the sibyl thought herself standing beside the shepherds’ fire, and that she listened to a faint sound which came trembling through the dead-still night? She heard it long before she marked that it did not come from earth, but from the sky. At last she raised her head; then she saw light, shimmering forms glide forward in the darkness. They were little flocks of angels, who, singing joyously, and apparently searching, flew back and forth above the wide plain.

While the sibyl was listening to the angel-song, the Emperor was making preparations for a new sacrifice. He washed his hands, cleansed the altar, and took up the other dove. And, although he exerted his full strength to hold it fast, the dove’s slippery body slid from his hand, and the bird swung itself up into the impenetrable night.

The Emperor was appalled! He fell upon his knees and prayed to his genius. He implored him for strength to avert the disasters which this night seemed to foreshadow.

Nor did the sibyl hear any of this either. She was listening with her whole soul to the angel-song, which grew louder and louder. At last it became so powerful that it wakened the shepherds. They raised themselves on their elbows and saw shining hosts of silver-white angels move in the darkness in long swaying lines, like migratory birds. Some held lutes and cymbals in their hands; others held zithers and harps, and their song rang out as merry as child-laughter, and as carefree as the lark’s thrill. When the shepherds heard this, they rose up to go to the mountain city, where they lived, to tell of the miracle.

They groped their way forward on a narrow, winding path, and the sibyl followed them. Suddenly it grew light up there on the mountain: a big, clear star kindled right over it, and the city on the mountain summit glittered like silver in the starlight. All the fluttering angel throngs hastened thither, shouting for joy, and the shepherds hurried so that they almost ran. When they reached the city, they found that the angels had assembled over a low stable near the city gate. It was a wretched structure, with a roof of straw and the naked cliff for a back wall. Over it hung the Star, and hither flocked more and more angels. Some seated themselves on the straw roof or alighted upon the steep mountain-wall back of the house; others, again, held themselves in the air on outspread wings, and hovered over it. High, high up, the air was illuminated by the shining wings.

The instant the Star kindled over the mountain city, all Nature awoke, and the men who stood upon Capitol Hill could not help seeing it. They felt fresh, but caressing winds which traveled through space; delicious perfumes streamed up about them; trees swayed; the Tiber began to murmur; the stars twinkled, and suddenly the moon stood out in the sky and lit up the world. And out of the clouds the two doves came circling down and lighted upon the Emperor’s shoulders.

When this miracle happened, Augustus rose, proud and happy, but his friends and his slaves fell on their knees.

“Hail, Cæsar!” they cried. “Thy genius hath answered thee. Thou art the god who shall be worshiped on Capitol Hill!”

And this cry of homage, which the men in their transport gave as a tribute to the emperor, was so loud that the old sibyl heard it. It waked her from her visions. She rose from her place on the edge of the cliff, and came down among the people. It was as if a dark cloud had arisen from the abyss and rushed down the mountain height. She was terrifying in her extreme age! Coarse hair hung in matted tangles around her head, her joints were enlarged, and the dark skin, hard as the bark of a tree, covered her body with furrow upon furrow.

Potent and awe-inspiring, she advanced toward the Emperor. With one hand she clutched his wrist, with the other she pointed toward the distant East.

“Look!” she commanded, and the Emperor raised his eyes and saw. The vaulted heavens opened before his eyes, and his glance traveled to the distant Orient. He saw a lowly stable behind a steep rock wall, and in the open doorway a few shepherds kneeling. Within the stable he saw a young mother on her knees before a little child, who lay upon a bundle of straw on the floor.

And the sibyl’s big, knotty fingers pointed toward the poor babe. “Hail, Cæsar!” cried the sibyl, in a burst of scornful laughter. “There is the god who shall be worshiped on Capitol Hill!”

Then Augustus shrank back from her, as from a maniac. But upon the sibyl fell the mighty spirit of prophecy. Her dim eyes began to burn, her hands were stretched toward heaven, her voice was so changed that it seemed not to be her own, but rang out with such resonance and power that it could have been heard over the whole world. And she uttered words which she appeared to be reading among the stars.

“Upon Capitol Hill shall the Redeemer of the world be worshiped—Christ—but not frail mortals.”

When she had said this, she strode past the terror-stricken men, walked slowly down the mountain, and disappeared.

But, on the following day, Augustus strictly forbade the people to raise any temple to him on Capitol Hill. In place of it he built a sanctuary to the new-born GodChild, and called it HEAVEN’S ALTAR—Ara Coeli.


Selma Lagerlöf (1858 – 1940) was a great Swedish writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909. This story is from her book Christ Legends which was published in 1908.


Featured: Adoration of the Shepherds, by Philippe de Champaigne; painted in 1640.


The Torn Cloak

High in the steeple the bells were conversing. Two of the younger ones were vexed and spoke angrily, “Is it not time we were asleep? It is almost midnight, and twice have we been shaken, twice have we been forced to cry out through the gloom just as though it were day, and we were singing the call for Sunday Mass. There are people moving about in the church; are we going to be tormented again, I wonder? Might they not leave us in peace?”

At this the oldest bell in the steeple said indignantly, in a voice which though cracked had lost none of its solemnity, “Hush, little ones! Are you not ashamed to speak so foolishly? When you went to Rome to be blessed, did you not take an oath, did you not swear to fulfil your duty? Do you not know that in a few minutes it will be Christmas, and that you will then celebrate the birth of Him whose resurrection you have already celebrated?”

“But it is so cold!” whimpered a young bell.

“And do you not think that He was cold, when He came into the world, naked and weak? Would He not have suffered on the heights of Bethlehem had not the ass and the ox warmed Him with their breath? Instead of grumbling and complaining, let your voices be sweet and tender in memory of the canticles with which His mother lulled Him to sleep. Come, hold yourselves in readiness. I can see them lighting the tapers; they have constructed a little manger before the Virgin’s altar; the banner is unfurled; the beadle is bustling about. He has a bad cold, the poor man; how he sneezes! Monsieur le Curé has put on his embroidered alb. I hear the approaching sound of wooden shoes; the peasants are coming to pray. The clock is about to strike the hour—now—Christmas! Christmas! Ring out with all your heart and all your might! Let no man say that he has not been summoned to midnight Mass.”

II.

It had been snowing for three days. The sky was black, the ground white; the north wind howled through the trees; the ponds were frozen; and the little birds were hungry. Women, wrapped in long mantles of brown wool, and men in heavy cloaks slowly made their way into the church. They knelt and with bent brows murmured the answer as the priest said, “And the Lord said unto me, ‘Thou art my Son, whom this day I have begotten.'” The incense was smoking, and blossoms of hellebore, which are the roses of Christmas, lay before the tabernacle in the light of the tapers. Behind one of the pillars, near the door of the church, knelt a child. His feet were bare. He had slipped off his wooden shoes on account of the noise they made. His cap lay on the floor before him and with clasped hands he prayed, “For the soul of my father who is dead, for the life of my mother, and for me, for your little Jacques, who loves you, O my God, I implore you!” And he knelt all through Mass, lost in the fervor of his devotion, and rose only when he heard the words,—

“Ite missa est.”

The people crowded together under the exterior porch. Every man lighted his lantern, and pulled up the collar of his cloak; and the women drew their mantles closely around them. Brrr! how cold it was! A little boy called out to Jacques, “Are you coming with us?”

“No,” said he, “I have not time;” and he started off on a run. He could hear the village people far away singing the favorite carol of olden France as they walked home,—

“He is born, the Heavenly Child.

Ring out, hautbois! ring out, bagpipes!

He is born, the Heavenly Child;

Let all voices sing his advent!”

III.

Jacques reached the thatched cottage at the far end of the hamlet, nestling in a rocky hollow at the foot of the hill. He opened the door carefully, and tiptoed into a room in which there was neither light nor fire.

“Is that you, little one?”

“Yes, mother.”

“I prayed while you were praying. You must be half asleep; go to bed, child. I do not need anything. If I am thirsty, I have the water-jug here where I can reach it.”

In a corner of the room near Marguerite’s bed, Jacques turned over a litter of ferns and dry grasses, stretched himself upon it, drew the ragged end of a blanket over him, and fell asleep. Marguerite, however, did not sleep. She was thinking, and her thoughts wrung tears from her eyes. She was evoking the happy days when her husband was with her, and life seemed so full of hope. She lay still, so as not to waken her boy, her head thrown back on the bolster, the tears trickling off her bony cheeks, her hand pressed to her hot chest.

Marguerite’s husband had been the pride of his village, a hard worker and an upright man. At the call of the Conscription he went to the wagon train, for he was a good driver, kind to his horses, a man who made his own bed only after having prepared their litter. He spoke with pleasure of the time when he had been “in the army of the war,” and would say laughingly, “I carted heaps of glory in the Crimea and in Italy.” His return to the village was a source of rejoicing. He had known Marguerite as a child; he now found her a woman, and married her. They were poor, Marguerite’s trousseau consisting of a three-franc cap, which she bought in order to make a good appearance at the church ceremony. They owned the cottage,—a miserable, dilapidated hut; but they were happy in it because they worked hard and loved each other. The village people said, “Marguerite is no simpleton. She knew what she was about when she married Grand-Pierre. The sun does not find him abed. He is strong, saving too, and no drunkard.”

Yes, Grand-Pierre was a good workman, spry, punctual,—a man of much action and few words. He had resumed his old trade, and drove his teams through the mountains for a man who was quarrying granite. He drove four stout-haunched, wide-chested horses, and excelled in manœuvring the screw-jack, in balancing the heaviest blocks, and driving down the steep declivities that opened into the plain. When he came home after his day’s work, he found the soup and a jug of cider on the table, and Marguerite waiting for him. Everything smiled upon them in the poor little home, where there was soon a willow cradle.

But happiness is short-lived. There is an Arab proverb that says, “As soon as a man paints his house in pink, fate hastens to daub it black.” For eleven years Pierre and Marguerite lived happily together and laid their plans with no fear of the future. Then misfortune came and made its home with them. One raw, foggy winter’s day Grand-Pierre went out to the mountain. He loaded his wagon; and after having left the dangerous passes of the road behind, he sat on the shaft for a rest, and leaned against a great block of granite. He was tired; and lulled by the swaying of the vehicle and the monotonous jingle of the bells, he involuntarily closed his eyes. After a little the left wheel went over a great limb that lay across the road. The shock was violent. Pierre was pitched from his seat; and before he could move, the heavy wheels rolled slowly over him and crushed in his chest.

The horses went their way unconscious of the fact that their driver, their oldest friend, lay dead behind them. They reached the quarriers and stopped at the door.

“Where is Grand-Pierre?”

Inquiries were made at once. Men were sent to the cottage. Marguerite grew anxious. As the light failed, they took torches and went up the mountain, shouting, “Hello there, Grand-Pierre!” but no voice answered. At last they came upon the poor man lying in the middle of the road on his back with outstretched arms. The wheels had cut through the cloak and the edge of the rent was crushed into his chest and black with blood.

All the villagers followed the corpse to the church and the cemetery, and held out their hands to Marguerite, who stood white and immobile, like a statue of wax, muttering mechanically under her breath, “O God, have pity! have pity!” Jacques was then in his tenth year. He could not appreciate the greatness of his mother’s sorrow, and only cried because she did.

Then misfortune had followed misfortune,—poverty, illness, misery. And so through this Christmas night Marguerite lay stifling her sobs as she recalled the past.

IV.

Jacques rose at dawn, shook off the dry grasses that stuck to his hair, and went over to his mother. Her eyes were half closed, her lips very white, and there were warm red spots on her cheeks. When she saw the boy, she made a faint movement with her head.

“Did you sleep, mother? Do you feel well?”

“Yes; but I am very cold. Make a little fire, will you?”

Jacques searched every corner of the hut, looked in the old cupboard, went through the cellar which had formerly contained their supplies, and said,—

“There is no wood left; and there are no roots either.”

“Never mind, then. It is not so very cold, after all.”

Jacques picked up a stone, hammered at the nail that secured the strap of his wooden shoe, slipped his foot into it, pulled his cap down over his ears, and said resolutely,—

“I am going out to the mountain to get some dead wood.”

“Why, you forget that to-day is Christmas, my child!”

“I know; but Monsieur le Curé will forgive me.”

“No, no, you must not go; it has been prohibited.”

“I will see that the rural guard does not catch me. Please let me go; I will be back soon.”

“Well, go, then.”

Jacques put his pruning-knife in his pocket, threw a rope over his shoulder, and opened the door. A gust of wind thick with snow dashed him back and whirled through the room.

“What a storm!”

“Holy angels!” cried Marguerite; “it is the white deluge! Listen, little one: you are not warm enough. Open the old chest where your father’s things are, and get his cloak,—the cloak he had on when they brought him home. Wrap it around you, and see that you do not take cold. One sick person in the house is enough.”

Jacques took the cloak, upon which a twig of blessed box had been laid. It was one of those great black and white cloaks of thick wool and goat-hair, with a small velvet collar and brass clasps. There was a gaping black rent in it, and here and there an ugly dark spot. It was very long for Jacques, so Marguerite pinned the edges up under the collar. When he was halfway out of the door she called out to him,—

“Jacques, if you pass the Trèves do not forget to say a prayer.”

V.

Jacques started off at a brisk pace. There was not a human being to be seen anywhere. The fields were gloomy and desolate. The snow seemed to shoot along horizontally, so violently was it lashed by the north wind. On the high, frosted limb of a poplar a raven was croaking. Jacques stopped every now and again to knock off the snow which gathered and hardened on the soles of his wooden shoes. He was not cold, but he found his cloak very heavy. He had gone a long way and had reached the first undulations of the mountain, the edge of the forest, when he stopped petrified before the rural guard, who appeared suddenly at a turn in the road, imposing with his cocked hat, his sword, and the word “Law” glittering on his belt.

This Father Monhache, who had been a sapper before he became a rural guard, was greatly dreaded in the land. He was the terror of the village boys, for whenever he found any of them stealing apples, shaking the plum-trees, or knocking down nuts, he swore at them terribly, and then led them by the ear to Monsieur le Maire, who sentenced the delinquents to a paternal spanking. Jacques was therefore aghast when he found himself face to face with this merciless representative of the authority.

“Where are you going, Jacques, in this devil of a storm?”

Jacques tried to concoct some story to explain his expedition; and before he had decided which would be the most effective, he caught himself saying simply,—

“I am going to the mountain, Father Monhache, to get some dead wood. We have none at home, and my mother is ill.”

The old guard dropped an oath and said in a voice which was by no means harsh,—

“Ah, so you are going to the mountain for dead wood, are you? Well, if I meet you in the village this evening with your fagot, I will close one eye and wink the other, do you understand? And if you ever tell anybody what I said, I will pull your ears.” And he walked off with a shrug. He had not gone ten feet when he turned and shouted, “There is more dead wood in the copse of the Prévoté than anywhere else.”

VI.

“He is not such a bad man, after all,” thought Jacques.

He was now climbing the mountain, and it was a hard struggle for his little legs. Every now and then he heard what he thought was a moan in the distance,—the breaking of a limb under the weight of the snow. Look as he would through all those branches, he could not see a single blackbird, nor even a jay. Not a little mouse ran along the slope. A few intrepid sparrows alone, black spots on the white ground, hopped about in search of food.

Measuring his steps to the time, Jacques began to sing in a low tone,—

“He is born, the Heavenly Child,—”

and walked along with a great effort, leaning forward. He sunk into hollows where the snow was deep. He knew that he was not far from the copse of the Prévoté, so he took courage, though he stubbed his foot against the hard, concealed ruts, and tumbled into holes. Father Monhache was right; there was surely no lack of dead wood at the copse of the Prévoté.

Over the shivering heather and the crouching brier, lay the fallen branches in their furrows. Jacques fell to work; and how he toiled! He had taken off his cloak, that his movements might be freer. His legs sunk deep in the snow. His hands and his arms were drenched and chilled, while his face was hot and wet with perspiration. He would stop every minute or two to look at his pile of wood, and think of the bright flame it would make in the hut.

When he had all he could carry, he tied it in a fagot, threw his cloak over his shoulders, and started along the shortest cut to the village. His legs trembled. Now and then he was compelled to stop and lean against a tree.

VII.

After a little he came to a cross-road. This was Trèves. In the days of the Romans it had been called Trivium, because of the three roads that met there. On that spot had formerly stood an altar to Mercury, the protector of roads, the god of travellers, and the patron of thieves. Christianity had torn down the Pagan altar and replaced it by a crucifix of granite. On the pedestal, gnawed by lichens, one may still find the date, A. D. 1314. During the Hundred Years’ War the statue was shattered, and the cross-road strewn with its fragments. Then, when the foreign element which sullied our land had been cast out, when “Joan, the good maid of Lorraine,” had returned the kingdom of France to the little king of Bourges, the statue was raised, and from that time it has been the object of special veneration through the country. Every peasant bows before it, and even the veterinary, who delights in laughing at priests, would not dare pass the Trèves without raising his hat.

With his hands nailed to the cross, his brow encircled with thorns, the Christ hangs, as though he were calling the whole world to take refuge in his outstretched arms. He seems enormous. In the folds of the cloth which girds his loins wrens have built nests that have never been disturbed. His face is turned toward the East; and his hollow, suffering gaze is fixed upon the sky, as though he were looking for the star that guided the Magi and led the shepherds to the stable in Bethlehem.

VIII.

Jacques did not forget his mother’s instruction. He laid down his fagot, took off his cap, and there, on his knees, began a prayer, to which the wind moaned a dreary accompaniment. He repeated some prayers which he had learned at the Catechism class; he said others too,—fervent words that rose of themselves from his heart. And as he prayed, he looked up at the Christ, lashed by the storm. Its parted lips and upturned eyes gave it an expression of infinite pain. Two little icicles, like congealed tears, hung on its eyelids, and the emaciated body stretched itself upon the cross in a last spasm of agony. Jacques began to suffer with the suffering embodied there, and he was moved to console the One whom he had come to invoke.

When his prayers were said, he took up his fagot and started on his way; but before he had left the cross-road behind him, he turned and looked back. The Christ’s eyes seemed to follow him. The face was less sombre; the features seemed to have relaxed into an expression of infinite gentleness. A gust of wind shook the snow that had accumulated on its outstretched arms. One might have believed that the statue had shivered. Jacques stopped. “Oh, my poor God,” said he, “how cold you are!” and he went back and stood before the crucifix. Then with a sudden impulse he took off his cloak. He climbed upon the pedestal, then putting his foot upon the projection of the loin-cloth, and reaching about the shoulders, he threw the cloak around the statue.

When he had reached the ground again, “Now, at least, you will not be so cold!” said he; and the two little icicles that had hung on the eyelids of the divine image melted and ran slowly down the granite cheeks like tears of gratitude.

Jacques started off at a rapid pace. The cruel north wind blew through his cotton blouse. He began to run, and the fagot beat against his shoulders and bruised them. At last he reached the foot of a declivity and stopped panting by a ravine sheltered from the snow and the wind by a wall of pines. How tired he was! He descended into the ravine and sat down to rest, only for a minute, thought he,—just a minute more, and he would be up again and on his way to his mother. How tired he was! His head, too, was very hot, and felt heavy. He lay down and leaned his head against the fagot. “I must not go to sleep,” he said. “Oh, no, I will not go to sleep;” and as he said this, his eyelids drooped, and he became suddenly engulfed in a great flood of unconsciousness.

IX.

When Jacques awoke he was greatly surprised. The ravine, the snow, the forest, the mountain, the gray sky, the freezing wind,—all had disappeared. He looked for his fagot, but could find it nowhere. He had never seen or even heard of this new country; and he was unable to define its substance, to circumscribe its immensity, or appreciate its splendors. The air was balmy, saturated with exquisite perfumes, and it exhaled soft harmonies that made his heart quiver with delight.

He rose. The ground beneath his feet was elastic, and seemed to rise to meet his step, so that walking became restful. A luminous halo hovered about him. Instead of the old torn cloak, he wore a mantle strewn with stars, and it was seamless, like the one for which dice were cast on the heights of Calvary. His hands—his poor little hands, tumefied with chilblains, and which the cold had chapped and creviced,—were now white and soft like the tips of a swan’s wings. Jacques was amazed, but no feeling of fear agitated him. He was calm and felt strangely confident. A great burden seemed to have been lifted from his shoulders; he was as light as the air, and aglow with beatitude.

“Where am I?” he asked; and a voice more harmonious than the whispering of the breeze answered,—

“In my Father’s House, which is the home of the Just.”

Then through a veil of azure and light a great granite crucifix arose before him. It was the crucifix of the Trèves. Grand-Pierre’s cloak, with the rent across it, floated from the shoulders of the Christ. The coarse wool had grown as diaphanous as a cloud, and through it the light radiated as from a sun. The thorns on his brow glittered like carbuncles, and a superhuman beauty lighted his countenance. From fields of space which the sight could now explore came aerial chants. Jacques fell upon his knees and prostrated himself.

The Christ said,—

“Rise, little one; you were moved to pity by the sufferings of your God,—you stripped yourself of your cloak to shield him from the cold, and this is why he has given you his cloak in exchange for yours; for of all the virtues the highest and rarest is charity, which surpasses wisdom and knowledge. Hereafter you will be the host of your God.”

Jacques took a few steps toward the dazzling vision and held out his arms in supplication.

“What do you want?” said the Christ.

The child said, “I want my mother.”

“The angels who carried Mary into Egypt will bring her to you.”

There was a great rustle of wings, and a smile shone on the face of the granite Christ.

Jacques was praying, but his prayer was unlike any that he had ever said before. It was a chant of ecstasy, which rose to his lips in words so beautiful that he experienced a sense of ineffable happiness in listening to himself.

Far away, on the brink of the horizon, pure and clear as crystal, he saw Marguerite borne toward him on billows of white. She was no longer pale, worn, and sad. She was radiant, and glowed with that internal light which is the beauty of the soul, and is alone imperishable. The angels laid her at the foot of the crucifix, and she prostrated herself and adored. When she raised her head there were two souls beside her, and their essences blended in one kiss, in one burst of gratitude. The granite Christ wept.

X.

High in the steeple the bells are conversing. The two younger ones are sullen. “The people in this village are mad. Why can they never be quiet? Were not yesterday’s duties sufficiently tiresome?—midnight Mass, Matins, the Mass of the Aurora, the third Mass, High Mass, Vespers, the Angelus, to say nothing of supplementary chimes. There was no end to it! And now to-day we must begin all over again. They pull us, they shake us,—first the toll for the dead, the funeral service next, then the burial. It is really too much! Why will they never leave us in peace on our frames? Our clappers are weary, and our sides are bruised with the repeated strokes. What can be the matter with these peasants? Here they come to church again in their holiday clothes. Father Monhache wears his most forbidding scowl; his beard bristles fiercely; every now and then he brushes something from his eyes with the back of his hand. His cocked hat has a defiant tilt. The boys had better be on their guard this day. Far down the road there, I see two coffins, one large and one small. They are lifting them on the oxcart; see! But what is that to us, and why are we expected to ring?”

The old bell, full of wisdom and experience, reproved them, saying,—

“Be still, and do not shame me with your ignorance. You have no conception of the dignity of your functions. You have been blessed; you are church-bells. To men you say, ‘Keep vigil over your immortal souls!’ and to God, ‘O Father, have pity on human weakness!’ Instead of being proud of your exalted mission, and meditating upon what you see, you chatter like hand-bells and reason like sleigh-bells. Your bright color and your clear voices need not make you vain, for age will tarnish you and the fatigues of your duty will crack your voices. When years have passed; when you shall have proclaimed church festivals, weddings, births, christenings, and funerals; after having raised the alarms for conflagrations, and rung the tocsin at the invasion of the enemy,—you will no longer complain of your fate; you will begin to comprehend the things of this world, and divine the secrets of the other; you will come to understand how tears on earth can become smiles in heaven.

“So ring gently, gently, without sadness or fear. Let your voices sound like the cooing of doves. A torn cloak in this world may be a mantle of eternal blessedness in the next.”


Maxime Du Camp (1822 – 1894) was an inflentual French writer and friend of the more famous Gustave Flaubert.


Featured: Carrying of the Cross, by Raphael; painted ca. 1516.


When the Swallows Homeward Fly

The arrogant sun had stalked away into the evening, trailing behind him banners of gold and crimson, and a swift twilight was streaming over the land. As the sun passed, the eyes of two men on a high hill followed it, and the look of one was like a light in a window to a lost traveller. It had in it the sense of home and the tale of a journey done. Such a journey this man had made as few have ever attempted, and fewer accomplished. To the farthermost regions of snow and ice, where the shoulder of a continent juts out into the northwestern Arctic seas, he had travelled on foot and alone, save for his dogs, and for Indian guides, who now and then shepherded him from point to point. The vast ice-hummocks had been his housing, pemmican, the raw flesh of fish, and even the fat and oil of seals had been his food. Ever and ever through long months the everlasting white glitter of the snow and ice, ever and ever the cold stars, the cloudless sky, the moon at full, or swung like a white sickle in the sky to warn him that his life must be mown like grass. At night to sleep in a bag of fur and wool, by day the steely wind, or the air shaking with a filmy powder of frost; while the illimitably distant sun made the tiny flakes sparkle like silver—a poudre day, when the face and hands are most like to be frozen, and all so still and white and passionless, yet aching with energy. Hundreds upon hundreds of miles that endless trail went winding to the farthest North-west. No human being had ever trod its lengths before, though Indians or a stray Hudson’s Bay Company man had made journeys over part of it during the years that have passed since Prince Rupert sent his adventurers to dot that northern land with posts and forts, and trace fine arteries of civilisation through the wastes.

Where this man had gone none other had been of white men from the Western lands, though from across the wide Pacific, from the Eastern world, adventurers and exiles had once visited what is now known as the Yukon Valley. So this man, browsing in the library of his grandfather, an Eastern scholar, had come to know; and for love of adventure, and because of the tale of a valley of gold and treasure to be had, and because he had been ruined by bad investments, he had made a journey like none ever essayed before. And on his way up to those regions, where the veil before the face of God is very thin and fine, and men’s hearts glow within them, where there was no oasis save the unguessed deposit of a great human dream that his soul could feel, the face of a girl had haunted him. Her voice—so sweet a voice that it rang like muffled silver in his ears, till, in the everlasting theatre of the Pole, the stars seemed to repeat it through millions of echoing hills, growing softer and softer as the frost hushed it to his ears-had said to him late and early, “You must come back with the swallows.” Then she had sung a song which had been like a fire in his heart, not alone because of the words of it, but because of the soul in her voice, and it had lain like a coverlet on his heart to keep it warm:

   “Adieu! The sun goes awearily down,
    The mist creeps up o’er the sleepy town,
    The white sail bends to the shuddering mere,
    And the reapers have reaped and the night is here.

    Adieu! And the years are a broken song,
    The right grows weak in the strife with wrong,
    The lilies of love have a crimson stain,
    And the old days never will come again.

    Adieu! Where the mountains afar are dim
    ‘Neath the tremulous tread of the seraphim,
    Shall not our querulous hearts prevail,
    That have prayed for the peace of the Holy Grail.

    Adieu! Sometime shall the veil between
    The things that are and that might have been
    Be folded back for our eyes to see,
    And the meaning of all shall be clear to me.”

It had been but an acquaintance of five days while he fitted out for his expedition, but in this brief time it had sunk deep into his mind that life was now a thing to cherish, and that he must indeed come back; though he had left England caring little if, in the peril and danger of his quest, he ever returned. He had been indifferent to his fate till he came to the Valley of the Saskatchewan, to the town lying at the foot of the maple hill beside the great northern stream, and saw the girl whose life was knit with the far north, whose mother’s heart was buried in the great wastes where Sir John Franklin’s expedition was lost; for her husband had been one of the ill-fated if not unhappy band of lovers of that civilisation for which they had risked all and lost all save immortality. Hither the two had come after he had been cast away on the icy plains, and as the settlement had crept north, had gone north with it, always on the outer edge of house and field, ever stepping northward. Here, with small income but high hearts and quiet souls, they had lived and laboured. And when this newcomer from the old land set his face northward to an unknown destination, the two women had prayed as the mother did in the old days when the daughter was but a babe at her knee, and it was not yet certain that Franklin and his men had been cast away for ever. Something in him, his great height, his strength of body, his clear, meditative eyes, his brave laugh, reminded her of him—her husband—who, like Sir Humphrey Gilbert, had said that it mattered little where men did their duty, since God was always near to take or leave as it was His will. When Bickersteth went, it was as though one they had known all their lives had passed; and the woman knew also that a new thought had been sown in her daughter’s mind, a new door opened in her heart.

And he had returned. He was now looking down into the valley where the village lay. Far, far over, two days’ march away, he could see the cluster of houses, and the glow of the sun on the tin spire of the little Mission Church where he had heard the girl and her mother sing, till the hearts of all were swept by feeling and ravished by the desire for “the peace of the Holy Grail.” The village was, in truth, but a day’s march away from him, but he was not alone, and the journey could not be hastened. Beside him, his eyes also upon the sunset and the village, was a man in a costume half-trapper, half-Indian, with bushy grey beard and massive frame, and a distant, sorrowful look, like that of one whose soul was tuned to past suffering. As he sat, his head sunk on his breast, his elbow resting on a stump of pine—the token of a progressive civilisation—his chin upon his hand, he looked like the figure of Moses made immortal by Michael Angelo. But his strength was not like that of the man beside him, who was thirty years younger. When he walked, it was as one who had no destination, who had no haven towards which to travel, who journeyed as one to whom the world is a wilderness, and one tent or one hut is the same as another, and none is home.

Like two ships meeting hull to hull on the wide seas, where a few miles of water will hide them from each other, whose ports are thousands of miles apart, whose courses are not the same, they two had met, the elder man, sick and worn, and near to death, in the poor hospitality of an Indian’s tepee. John Bickersteth had nursed the old man back to strength, and had brought him southward with him—a silent companion, who spoke in monosyllables, who had no conversation at all of the past, and little of the present; but who was a woodsman and an Arctic traveller of the most expert kind; who knew by instinct where the best places for shelter and for sleeping might be found; who never complained, and was wonderful with the dogs. Close as their association was, Bickersteth had felt concerning the other that his real self was in some other sphere or place towards which his mind was always turning, as though to bring it back.

Again and again had Bickersteth tried to get the old man to speak about the past, but he had been met by a dumb sort of look, a straining to understand. Once or twice the old man had taken his hands in both of his own, and gazed with painful eagerness into his face, as though trying to remember or to comprehend something that eluded him. Upon these occasions the old man’s eyes dropped tears in an apathetic quiet, which tortured Bickersteth beyond bearing. Just such a look he had seen in the eyes of a favourite dog when he had performed an operation on it to save its life—a reproachful, non-comprehending, loving gaze.

Bickersteth understood a little of the Chinook language, which is familiar to most Indian tribes, and he had learned that the Indians knew nothing exact concerning the old man; but rumours had passed from tribe to tribe that this white man had lived for ever in the farthest north among the Arctic tribes, and that he passed from people to people, disappearing into the untenanted wilderness, but reappearing again among stranger tribes, never resting, and as one always seeking what he could not find.

One thing had helped this old man in all his travels and sojourning. He had, as it seemed to the native people, a gift of the hands; for when they were sick, a few moments’ manipulation of his huge, quiet fingers vanquished pain. A few herbs he gave in tincture, and these also were praised; but it was a legend that when he was persuaded to lay on his hands and close his eyes, and with his fingers to “search for the pain and find it, and kill it,” he always prevailed. They believed that though his body was on earth his soul was with Manitou, and that it was his soul which came into him again, and gave the Great Spirit’s healing to the fingers. This had been the man’s safety through how many years—or how many generations—they did not know; for legends regarding the pilgrim had grown and were fostered by the medicine men who, by giving him great age and supernatural power, could, with more self-respect, apologise for their own incapacity.

So the years—how many it was impossible to tell, since he did not know or would not say—had gone on; and now, after ceaseless wandering, his face was turned towards that civilisation out of which he had come so long ago—or was it so long ago—one generation, or two, or ten? It seemed to Bickersteth at times as though it were ten, so strange, so unworldly was his companion. At first he thought that the man remembered more than he would appear to acknowledge, but he found that after a day or two everything that happened as they journeyed was also forgotten.

It was only visible things, or sounds, that appeared to open the doors of memory of the most recent happenings. These happenings, if not varied, were of critical moment, since, passing down from the land of unchanging ice and snow, they had come into March and April storms, and the perils of the rapids and the swollen floods of May. Now, in June, two years and a month since Bickersteth had gone into the wilds, they looked down upon the goal of one at least—of the younger man who had triumphed in his quest up in these wilds abandoned centuries ago.

With the joyous thought in his heart, that he had discovered anew one of the greatest gold-fields of the world, that a journey unparalleled had been accomplished, he turned towards his ancient companion, and a feeling of pity and human love enlarged within him. He, John Bickersteth, was going into a world again, where—as he believed—a happy fate awaited him; but what of this old man? He had brought him out of the wilds, out of the unknown—was he only taking him into the unknown again? Were there friends, any friends anywhere in the world waiting for him? He called himself by no name, he said he had no name. Whence came he? Of whom? Whither was he wending now? Bickersteth had thought of the problem often, and he had no answer for it save that he must be taken care of, if not by others, then by himself; for the old man had saved him from drowning; had also saved him from an awful death on a March day when he fell into a great hole and was knocked insensible in the drifting snow; had saved him from brooding on himself—the beginning of madness—by compelling him to think for another. And sometimes, as he had looked at the old man, his imagination had caught the spirit of the legend of the Indians, and he had cried out, “O soul, come back and give him memory—give him back his memory, Manitou the mighty!”

Looking on the old man now, an impulse seized him. “Dear old man,” he said, speaking as one speaks to a child that cannot understand, “you shall never want, while I have a penny, or have head or hands to work. But is there no one that you care for or that cares for you, that you remember, or that remembers you?”

The old man shook his head though not with understanding, and he laid a hand on the young man’s shoulder, and whispered:

“Once it was always snow, but now it is green, the land. I have seen it—I have seen it once.” His shaggy eyebrows gathered over, his eyes searched, searched the face of John Bickersteth. “Once, so long ago—I cannot think,” he added helplessly.

“Dear old man,” Bickersteth said gently, knowing he would not wholly comprehend, “I am going to ask her—Alice—to marry me, and if she does, she will help look after you, too. Neither of us would have been here without the other, dear old man, and we shall not be separated. Whoever you are, you are a gentleman, and you might have been my father or hers—or hers.”

He stopped suddenly. A thought had flashed through his mind, a thought which stunned him, which passed like some powerful current through his veins, shocked him, then gave him a palpitating life. It was a wild thought, but yet why not—why not? There was the chance, the faint, far-off chance. He caught the old man by the shoulders, and looked him in the eyes, scanned his features, pushed back the hair from the rugged forehead.

“Dear old man,” he said, his voice shaking, “do you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking that you may be of those who went out to the Arctic Sea with Sir John Franklin—with Sir John Franklin, you understand. Did you know Sir John Franklin—is it true, dear old boy, is it true? Are you one that has lived to tell the tale? Did you know Sir John Franklin—is it—tell me, is it true?”

He let go the old man’s shoulders, for over the face of the other there had passed a change. It was strained and tense. The hands were outstretched, the eyes were staring straight into the west and the coming night.

“It is—it is—that’s it!” cried Bickersteth. “That’s it—love o’ God, that’s it! Sir John Franklin—Sir John Franklin, and all the brave lads that died up there! You remember the ship—the Arctic Sea—the ice-fields, and Franklin—you remember him? Dear old man, say you remember Franklin?”

The thing had seized him. Conviction was upon him, and he watched the other’s anguished face with anguish and excitement in his own. But—but it might be, it might be her father—the eyes, the forehead are like hers; the hands, the long hands, the pointed fingers. “Come, tell me, did you have a wife and child, and were they both called Alice—do you remember? Franklin—Alice! Do you remember?”

The other got slowly to his feet, his arms outstretched, the look in his face changing, understanding struggling for its place, memory fighting for its own, the soul contending for its mastery.

“Franklin—Alice—the snow,” he said confusedly, and sank down.

“God have mercy!” cried Bickersteth, as he caught the swaying body, and laid it upon the ground. “He was there—almost.”

He settled the old man against the great pine stump and chafed his hands. “Man, dear man, if you belong to her—if you do, can’t you see what it will mean to me? She can’t say no to me then. But if it’s true, you’ll belong to England and to all the world, too, and you’ll have fame everlasting. I’ll have gold for her and for you, and for your Alice, too, poor old boy. Wake up now and remember if you are Luke Allingham who went with Franklin to the silent seas of the Pole. If it’s you, really you, what wonder you lost your memory! You saw them all die, Franklin and all, die there in the snow, with all the white world round them. If you were there, what a travel you have had, what strange things you have seen! Where the world is loneliest, God lives most. If you get close to the heart of things, it’s no marvel you forgot what you were, or where you came from; because it didn’t matter; you knew that you were only one of thousands of millions who have come and gone, that make up the soul of things, that make the pulses of the universe beat. That’s it, dear old man. The universe would die, if it weren’t for the souls that leave this world and fill it with life. Wake up! Wake up, Allingham, and tell us where you’ve been and what you’ve seen.”

He did not labour in vain. Slowly consciousness came back, and the grey eyes opened wide, the lips smiled faintly under the bushy beard; but Bickersteth saw that the look in the face was much the same as it had been before. The struggle had been too great, the fight for the other lost self had exhausted him, mind and body, and only a deep obliquity and a great weariness filled the countenance. He had come back to the verge, he had almost again discovered himself; but the opening door had shut fast suddenly, and he was back again in the night, the incompanionable night of forgetfulness.

Bickersteth saw that the travail and strife had drained life and energy, and that he must not press the mind and vitality of this exile of time and the unknown too far. He felt that when the next test came the old man would either break completely, and sink down into another and everlasting forgetfulness, or tear away forever the veil between himself and his past, and emerge into a long-lost life. His strength must be shepherded, and he must be kept quiet and undisturbed until they came to the town yonder in the valley, over which the night was slowly settling down. There two women waited, the two Alices, from both of whom had gone lovers into the North. The daughter was living over again in her young love the pangs of suspense through which her mother had passed. Two years since Bickersteth had gone, and not a sign!

Yet, if the girl had looked from her bedroom window, this Friday night, she would have seen on the far hill a sign; for there burned a fire beside which sat two travellers who had come from the uttermost limits of snow. But as the fire burned—a beacon to her heart if she had but known it—she went to her bed, the words of a song she had sung at choir—practice with tears in her voice and in her heart ringing in her ears. A concert was to be held after the service on the coming Sunday night, at which there was to be a collection for funds to build another mission-house a hundred miles farther North, and she had been practising music she was to sing. Her mother had been an amateur singer of great power, and she was renewing her mother’s gift in a voice behind which lay a hidden sorrow. As she cried herself to sleep the words of the song which had moved her kept ringing in her ears and echoing in her heart:

   “When the swallows homeward fly,
    And the roses’ bloom is o’er—”

But her mother, looking out into the night, saw on the far hill the fire, burning like a star, where she had never seen a fire set before, and a hope shot into her heart for her daughter—a hope that had flamed up and died down so often during the past year. Yet she had fanned with heartening words every such glimmer of hope when it came, and now she went to bed saying, “Perhaps he will come to-morrow.” In her mind, too, rang the words of the song which had ravished her ears that night, the song she had sung the night before her own husband, Luke Allingham, had gone with Franklin to the Polar seas:

“When the swallows homeward fly—”

As she and her daughter entered the little church on the Sunday evening, two men came over the prairie slowly towards the town, and both raised their heads to the sound of the church-bell calling to prayer. In the eyes of the younger man there was a look which has come to many in this world returning from hard enterprise and great dangers, to the familiar streets, the friendly faces of men of their kin and clan-to the lights of home.

The face of the older man, however, had another look.

It was such a look as is seldom seen in the faces of men, for it showed the struggle of a soul to regain its identity. The words which the old man had uttered in response to Bickersteth’s appeal before he fainted away, “Franklin—Alice—the snow,” had showed that he was on the verge; the bells of the church pealing in the summer air brought him near it once again. How many years had gone since he had heard church-bells? Bickersteth, gazing at him in eager scrutiny, wondered if, after all, he might be mistaken about him. But no, this man had never been born and bred in the far North. His was a type which belonged to the civilisation from which he himself had come. There would soon be the test of it all. Yet he shuddered, too, to think what might happen if it was all true, and discovery or reunion should shake to the centre the very life of the two long-parted ones.

He saw the look of perplexed pain and joy at once in the face of the old man, but he said nothing, and he was almost glad when the bell stopped. The old man turned to him.

“What is it?” he asked. “I remember—” but he stopped suddenly, shaking his head.

An hour later, cleared of the dust of travel, the two walked slowly towards the church from the little tavern where they were lodged. The service was now over, but the concert had begun. The church was full, and there were people in the porch; but these made way for the two strangers; and, as Bickersteth was recognised by two or three present, place was found for them. Inside, the old man stared round him in a confused and troubled way, but his motions were quiet and abstracted and he looked like some old viking, his workaday life done, come to pray ere he went hence forever. They had entered in a pause in the concert, but now two ladies came forward to the chancel steps, and one with her hands clasped before her, began to sing:

   “When the swallows homeward fly,
    And the roses’ bloom is o’er,
    And the nightingale’s sweet song
    In the woods is heard no more—”

It was Alice—Alice the daughter—and presently the mother, the other Alice, joined in the refrain. At sight of them Bickersteth’s eyes had filled, not with tears, but with a cloud of feeling, so that he went blind. There she was, the girl he loved. Her voice was ringing in his ears. In his own joy for one instant he had forgotten the old man beside him, and the great test that was now upon him. He turned quickly, however, as the old man got to his feet. For an instant the lost exile of the North stood as though transfixed. The blood slowly drained from his face, and in his eyes was an agony of struggle and desire. For a moment an awful confusion had the mastery, and then suddenly a clear light broke into his eyes, his face flushed healthily and shone, his arms went up, and there rang in his ears the words:

   “Then I think with bitter pain,
    Shall we ever meet again?
    When the swallows homeward fly—”

“Alice—Alice!” he called, and tottered forward up the aisle, followed by John Bickersteth.

“Alice, I have come back!” he cried again.

1909.

The title of this story comes from a very popular German poem, “Wenn die Schwalben heimwärts ziehn,” from 1830, written by Karl Herlosssohn (1804-1849). The verse was set to music in 1849 by Franz Wilhelm Abt (1819-1885) and immediately became popular in Germany and the English-speaking world. It remains popular in Germany as a folksong.


Sir Gilbert Parker (1862 – 1932) was a Canadian writer and British parliamentarian. His stories are evocative of the early history of Canada, especially that of Quebec.


Featured: Chromolithograph print, from 1907.


50 Years Ago: The Gulag Archipelago, A Revolution from the East

The reception of The Gulag Archipelago (1973) and its author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), in Europe and the West alike, has been generally benevolent and even enthusiastic, but it has not failed to be reserved, even violently hostile, in certain media and political-intellectual circles. Spain is perhaps one of the countries where the reaction of the mainstream media has been the most execrable and undignified. Let us recall these not-so-distant episodes.

Solzhenitsyn, a victim of hatred

On March 20, 1976, four months after Franco’s death, Alexander Solzhenitsin told Televisión Española: “Do you progressives know what a dictatorship is? If we enjoyed the freedom you enjoy, we would be open-mouthed; such freedom is unknown to us. For sixty years we have been ignorant of these freedoms.” These statements immediately unleashed a campaign of extremely violent slander in most of the national press. Among the adjectives with which he was showered, we may mention, “paranoid,” “clown,” “buffoon,” “fanatic,” “liar,” “comedian,” “enemy of the people,” “fascist agent who wants an anti-Stalinist Stalinism (sic),” “mercenary,” “bad writer,” “megalomaniac,” “author of four ridiculous novels,” and so on and so forth. Referring to his physique as nothing less than “repugnant,” the press described him as “short”, “a small fellah,” “starveling”, “a talking head,” “a sausage,” and so on. To have a more concrete idea of the wave of hatred that he raised, here is an example of the article that could be read on March 27, 1976 in Cuadernos para el Diálogo (a magazine founded and presided over by Ruiz Giménez, former ambassador to the Vatican and minister of Education under Franco, who went into opposition and became the leader of the left-wing Catholics allied with the Communists, and vice-president of the René Cassin Institute for Human Rights, based in Strasbourg). The article was written by Juan Benet:

I firmly believe that as long as there are people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, concentration camps will and must remain. Perhaps they should be a little better guarded so that people like Solzhenitsyn, until they get a little education, cannot go out on the streets. But once the mistake of letting them out has been made, nothing seems to me more hygienic than for the Soviet entities (whose tastes and criteria regarding subversive Russian writers I often share) to find a way to shake off such a pest.

Not to be outdone, Eduardo Barrenechea, another specimen of a defender of the spirit of the Cheka and at the same time deputy editor of the magazine, insisted: “I don’t know if he would also add in Russian a little ‘Heil Hitler!’”

In France, the evening paper Le Monde, a sort of French equivalent of El Pais (self-proclaimed “newspaper of reference,” but nicknamed, with a sense of humor, L’Immonde (The Repugnant) by President Charles de Gaulle), shamefully entitled an article, dated March 23, “Solzhenitsyn thinks that Spaniards live in the most absolute freedom,” falsely attributing to him a statement he had never uttered. In short, Solzhenitsyn, speaking of what he had been able to observe, concluded only that, in comparison with the repressive Soviet system, the Spanish system was incomparably more liberal.

But the real reason for this deluge of insults in the twilight of Francoism lay elsewhere. The Russian writer’s uncompromising criticism of communism and its socialist-Marxist allies was deemed unacceptable. He had committed an unforgivable crime by asking the fundamental question, a veritable historiographical taboo: is this ideology intrinsically evil? And he answered bluntly: yes, calling for the rejection of any complicity with its representatives. In short, he demonstrated that the Soviet concentration camp system was not the fruit of Stalinist will alone, but that it was already germinating in the Leninist and Marxist beginnings. Obviously, this was too much in the eyes of communists and other nostalgic supporters of the Popular Fronts of the interwar period.

Thirty years later, the Communists and their fellow travelers, more or less well disguised as “lifelong democrats,” would take up the antiphon so dear to them against the “reactionary,” the “tsarist,” the “professional anti-communist.” Even the literary qualities of this highly talented writer were criticized and denigrated by them. On the occasion of Solzhenitsyn’s death in 2008, the Frenchman Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ex-Trotskyite, ex-Socialist minister, senator and future founder of France Insoumise (a kind of Hexagonian Podemos), known for his fanaticism and sectarian blindness, expressed his hatred without the slightest restraint: “The apology of Solzhenitsyn, ‘great thinker of democracy against Stalinism,’ hurts my heart because I think of all those unfortunate people who, from the very first hour, led their struggle without being stuffed with honors, gilded trinkets, residences, protections of all kinds, as Solzhenitsyn was given, simply because he was right-wing,” and again, “Solzhenitsyn was an absurd, pontificating, macho, homophobic, backward-looking dullard, full of nostalgic bigotry for the great feudal and religious Russia. He was a useful parrot of Western propaganda.” We cannot help but paraphrase screenwriter Michel Audiard’s legendary line: “If all the jerks were put into orbit, Mélenchon would not stop spinning.”

In 2023, we are, alas, still there. The prestigious Russian writer, when he is not deliberately forgotten, is constantly reviled by Chekist minds. He is also vilified by a number of liberal and social-democratic journalists and political leaders, who cannot forgive him for his criticism of the decadent West in his Harvard speech (“The Decline of Courage,” 1978), let alone for having been awarded one of the highest official honors by Putin in 2007, and who described by him as a “major historian,” the first to have reported “one of the tragedies of the Soviet period.” Stupidity and sectarianism are certainly diseases that claim more victims than any pandemic!

But despite his many adversaries and enemies, Solzhenitsyn is now universally recognized as one of the greatest writers of his time, and The Gulag Archipelago is considered one of the major works of the 20th century. But who really was Solzhenitsyn, and why did The Archipelago have such an impact in the West?

From Obscure “homo sovieticus” to Most Famous Anti-Totalitarian Dissident

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918, in a Caucasian town on the edge of southern Russia. Fatherless from birth, young Alexander was raised alone by his mother. A year earlier, two successive coups d’état (later described as “revolutions”) had swept away the imperial regime in Petrograd, making way for the Bolshevik dictatorship. In 1924, Solzhenitsyn’s mother moved to Rostov-on-Don, on the shores of the Black Sea. It was here that Alexander Isayevich grew up, and in 1936 entered the city’s University of Physics and Mathematics.

Like all young people of his generation, he joined the Communist Youth movement at an early age. His mother had taken him to church from time to time, but it was soon banned and closed. Her son, a victim of Communist propaganda, became a convinced Marxist socialist for almost twenty years. After becoming a secondary school teacher, he was mobilized in 1941 when the USSR, initially allied with National Socialist Germany, was invaded and forced to join the Second World War. Solzhenitsyn was soon commissioned an officer and awarded the Order of the Red Star for his bravery in battle. An unwavering Communist, he experienced first-hand the arbitrary arrests and harsh realities of the Communist concentration camps (1945-1953) before finally opening his eyes.

On February 9, 1945, the young Soviet captain was arrested in his colonel’s office on the Baltic coast, just before the German surrender. The military police had intercepted his correspondence with a childhood friend, in which he had had the misfortune to give his opinion on the country’s destiny, criticizing in veiled words Stalin’s policies.

Thrown into the jails of the Lubyanka, a sinister KGB interrogation center in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced on July 27 to eight years in a “labor camp.” After two years of internment, he was transferred to a Sharashka, a prison for scientists, also in Moscow. Alexander Isayevich began to compose works clandestinely. In May 1948, he was sent to a forced-labor camp in Kazakhstan, where he worked as a foundryman and then as a mason. In 1953, he was sent to “perpetual relegation” in a village, again in Kazakhstan, where he resumed his teaching activities. Three years later, thanks to de-Stalinization, he was finally released and rehabilitated.

In October 1962, Solzhenitsyn published A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the story of the simple, humble prisoner, Shukhov, prisoner number CH-854, in a concentration and labor camp. This work, which appeared in the official literary journal Novy Mir the day after Stalin’s death (1962), was a huge success in the USSR For the first time, a literary work openly denounced the crimes of Stalinism. Of course, this book served the internal struggles of the Communist Party, but, much more importantly, it freed the speech of Russian intellectuals for the first time.

Soon, however, Solzhenitsyn was forced to continue his work underground. He gradually developed a more radical critique of the regime. He wanted to awaken consciences, defend human dignity, recall the importance of spiritual realities and unambiguously affirm the primacy of God. Individual happiness, he said, could not be the ultimate criterion of all morality. In October 1964, Solzhenitsyn began composing his best-known and most explosive work: The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, An Experiment in Literary Investigation. It is a veritable literary monument that he intends to erect “in memory of all those tortured and murdered.”

His work was organized in secret, with the support of a clandestine network of very close friends. For years, Solzhenitsyn defied the Communist authorities. In his letter to the Writers’ Union (1967), he denounced the censorship and persecution to which he was subjected. In response, all means were used to stifle his voice. In 1968, he published The First Circle and Cancer Ward abroad. At the same time, he managed to grant a few interviews to the international press. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It became increasingly difficult to silence him. On August 30, 1973, a typist friend of his was found hanged in her home after having been tortured by the KGB, to whom she had given the hiding place of a copy of the manuscript of The Archipelago. Without further ado, Solzhenitsyn instructed a foreign friend to publish the work as soon as possible in the West. Photographed, microfilmed and smuggled from city to city, the manuscript eventually found its way to the West. The first volume was published in Russian by YMCA-Press in Paris on December 28, 1973, with the other two volumes to follow. They were translated into all the major languages, including French and English in 1974, and Spanish in 1976. No fewer than 10 million copies were sold worldwide.

An Intellectual, Popular and Political Revolution

It is no exaggeration to say that this book, which masterfully dissects the intrinsic mechanics of Soviet repression, made a powerful contribution to changing the course of history. It is a kind of ray of light that illuminates the turpitudes of the Soviet system. In itself, it is an intellectual, popular and political revolution.

On February 13, 1974, after an admirable intellectual resistance, without the slightest compromise or concession, the dissident writer was arrested at his home, stripped of his Soviet nationality and deported by special plane to West Germany. Solzhenitsyn went into exile in Switzerland and then the United States, where he devoted himself to writing The Red Wheel, an enormous 6,600-page fresco analyzing the origins of the Russian drama and unravelling its “knots” from August 1914 to April 1917. The Russian writer was highly critical of the Soviet communist system, but no less so of the West, which he considered cowardly and materialistic. To the astonishment and irritation of many, he was not afraid to debate and contradict the self-proclaimed pseudo-elites of Europe and America. A visionary, he warns Western states that believe they can impose their model on the whole world—they risk generating violent opposition if they do not respect the autonomy of other cultures.

In December 1988, the Russian intelligentsia met to celebrate the writer’s 70th birthday; two months later, they met again to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his expulsion. In June, Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he had authorized the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the USSR. Its availability in Russian bookshops became a symbol of “glasnost.” The year 1990 was proclaimed “Solzhenitsyn Year” by the editor-in-chief of the Russian magazine Novy Mir. Colloquia were organized on his work, and all his writings were gradually published in Russia. Selected works were recommended for reading in schools.

Solzhenitsyn’s attachment to the “motherland,” to the identity of the Russian people, is a constant. That’s why he fiercely defended the “humiliated” who suffered under President Yeltsin’s savage “liberalization,” and denounced “the pirate state that hides under a democratic banner.” Banished, he never lost the conviction that one day he would return to Russia. This happened in 1994, after the dismantling of the Communist regimes in Europe and the USSR. Symbolically, the former convict chose to land in Magadan, in the far east of the country, on the Pacific coast, a stronghold of the Siberian Gulag. Then, for a month, he traveled from town to town, all the way to Moscow, where he met a Russian population fervent with admiration for the hero.

At the time of its publication in the West, The Gulag Archipelago did not provide the first review of the Soviet concentration and penitentiary system. In the 1920s, the edifying testimonies of many exiles were already known, in particular those of the hundreds of cultural and scientific personalities who were banished, expelled and threatened with being shot if they returned to the USSR at Lenin’s personal instigation. These intellectuals, many of them among the most prominent of the Russian intelligentsia, such as Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Nikolay Lossky, Ivan Ilyin, Georges Florovsky, Semyon Frank or Pitirim Sorokin, were not hostile to the revolution as the GPU (the political police) claimed, but opposed Lenin’s extreme and violent line. In particular, they reproached Lenin, as well as the members of the Committee for Aid to the Hungry, for not having taken the necessary measures to stop the terrible famine of 1921-1922. Slander, defamation, silence or oblivion were the fate of these first victims of the Leninist purges who, no doubt because of their notoriety, escaped death in the concentration and forced labor camps created by Trotsky and Lenin in June and August 1918 to imprison “kulaks, priests, White Guards and other dubious elements.”

Already in 1935, Boris Souvarine had published his biography of Stalin (Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism), which dismantled “in the name of socialism and communism” the lies of Soviet “pseudo-communism.” In 1936, André Gide denounced in his book, Return from the USSR, the vices and defects of a system he had defended until then. As a consequence, the Friends of the Soviet Union declared him a traitor and agent of the Gestapo. Then, after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), came the instructive testimonies of former communist political commissars such as Arthur Koestler or former members of the POUM, such as George Orwell. One of the main heads of Soviet military intelligence in Western Europe, Walter G. Krivitsky, who moved to the West in October 1937, also gave a particularly valuable account of the democratic fiction of the various Popular Fronts, of the Comintern’s action in the West and of its relations with the GPU. He was violently attacked by the American and European left in 1939, when he published two books on Stalin’s methods (In Stalin’s Secret Service and I Was Stalin’s Agent, 1940), and finally “committed suicide” (or was killed) in a Washington hotel in 1941. Ukrainian exile Victor Kravchenko’s best-seller, I Chose Freedom (1946), also gave rise in France to one of the most resounding post-war trials in 1949. The testimonies of communists who had fled to the West, and those of former international brigadists who had survived the war in Spain, came at a quick succession; but the reaction of the socialist-Marxist left was always the same: insults, shrugging of shoulders, skepticism and visceral hostility. As for the intellectuals of the non-Communist left, they were conspicuous by their absence. The manipulation of history by the communists and their fellow travelers was almost total for decades.

The manipulation continued, though only in part, when the bombshell that was The Gulag Archipelago exploded. The benevolence, indulgence, connivance and complicity of a large part of Western cultural and media circles towards Marxist socialism and communist abominations, a tradition that was already more than half a century old in the West, was began to crack. In the 1970s, the political-intellectual circumstances in the various Western countries were very different from those in Spain. Western intellectuals, already fairly disenchanted with the experiences of Marxist socialism, probably felt a mixture of guilt and fascination with Solzhenitsyn, who had risked his own life and that of his loved ones in the name of truth. At the same time, the Russian writer’s popular appeal and rapidly-acquired authority made it difficult for them not to relativize not only their historical certainties, but also their relationship with political power and freedom of expression. Solzhenitsyn’s work was clearly helping to demolish the “communist revolutionary catechism;” and for many opportunists it was high time to jump on the bandwagon.

In addition to the relatively favorable social context, it was undoubtedly the form of the book that made it such an immediate success. The strength of the story lies not only in the literary talent of its author, but also in the original form he chose. The Gulag Archipelago is not the umpteenth account of a camp survivor, but a genuine investigation, bringing together 227 testimonies put into perspective.

On the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, let us remember those moving and severe words of its author: “You have forgotten the meaning of freedom… it cannot be dissociated from its purpose, which is precisely the exaltation of man. It was the function of freedom to make possible the emergence of values. Freedom leads to virtue and heroism. You have forgotten this; time has corroded your notion of freedom because the freedom you have is nothing more than a caricature of the great freedom; a freedom without obligation and without responsibility that leads, at most, to the enjoyment of goods. No one is ready to die for it… You are not capable of sacrificing yourselves for this phantom of freedom, you simply compromise yourselves.”


Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECDHe is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left—all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.