Robert Lynd (1879-1949) was an irish essayist and writer. This excerpt is from The Pleasures of Ignorance, which was published in 1921.

May is chiefly remarkable for being the only month in which one does not like cats. June, too, perhaps; but, after that, one does not mind if the garden is full of cats. One likes to have a wild beast whose movements, lazy as those of Satan, will terrify the childish birds out of the gooseberry bushes and the raspberries and strawberries. He will not, we know, have much chance of catching them as late as that. They will be as cunning as he, and the robin will wind his alarum-clock, the starling in the plum-tree will cry out like a hysterical drake, and the blackbird will make as much noise as a farmyard. The cat can but blink at the clamour of such a host of cunning sentinels and, pretending that he had come out only to take the air, return majestically to his dinner of leavings in the kitchen. In May and June, however, one does not wish the birds to be frightened. One would like one’s garden to be an Alsatia for all their wings and all their songs. There is no hope of this in a garden full of cats. Even a Tetrazzini would cease to be able to produce her best trills if every time she opened her mouth, a tiger padded in her direction down a path of currant bushes. There are, it may be admitted, heroic exceptions. The chaffinch sits in the plum and blusters out his music, cat or no cat. To be sure, he only sings, a flush of all the colours, in order to distract our attention. He is not an artist but a watchman. If you look into the buddleia-tree beside him, you will see his hen moving about in silence, creeping, dancing, fluttering, as she gorges herself with insects. She is a fly-catcher at this season, leaping into the air and pirouetting as she seizes her prey and returns to the bough. She is restless and is not content with the spoil of a single tree. She flings herself gracefully, like a ballet-dancer, into the plum, and takes up a caterpillar in her beak. She does not eat it at once, but stands still, eyeing you as though awaiting your applause. Her husband, sitting on the topmost spray, goes on singing his version of The Roast Beef of Old England. She does not even now eat the caterpillar, but hurries along the paths of the branches with the obvious purpose of finding a tasty insect to eat long with it. It may be that there are insects that play the part of mustard or Worcestershire sauce in the chaffinch world. What a meal she is making in any case before she hurries back to her nest! It seems that among the chaffinches the male is the more spiritual of the sexes. But then he has so little to do compared with the female. He is still in that state of savagery in which the male dresses finely and idles.

The thrush cannot carry on with the same indifference to cats. He is the most nervous of parents, and spends half his time calling on his children to be careful. The young thrush hopping about on the lawn knows nothing of cats and refuses to believe that they are dangerous. He is not afraid even of human beings. His parent becomes argumentative to the point of tears, but the young one stays where he is and looks at you with a sideways jerk of his head as much as to say: “Listen to the old ‘un.” You, too, begin to be alarmed at such boldness. You know, like the pitiful parent, that the world is a very dangerous place, and that your neighbour’s cat goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. It has been contended by some men of science that all birds are born fearless after the manner of the young thrush, and that fear is a lesson that has to be taught to each new generation by the more experienced parents. Fear, they say, is not an inherited instinct, but a racial tradition that has to be communicated like the morality of civilised people. The young thrush on the lawn is certainly a witness on behalf of this theory. He hops towards you instead of away from you. He moves his gaping beak as though he were trying to say something. If there were no cats in the world, you would encourage his confidences, but you feel that, much as you would like to make friends with him, you must, for his own sake, give him his first lesson in fear. You try to give yourself the appearance of a grim giant: it has no effect on him. You make a quick movement to chase him away: he runs a few yards and then stops and looks round at you as though you were playing a game. It is too much to expect of you that you will actually throw stones at a bird for its good, and so you give up his education as a bad job. Alas, in two days, your worst fears are justified. His dead body is found, torn and ruffled, among the bushes. Some cat has murdered him—murdered him, evidently, not in hunger, but just for fun. Two indignant children, one gold, one brown, discover the dead body and bring in the tale. They prepare the funeral rites of one whose only sin was his innocence. This is not the first burial in the garden. There is already a cemetery marked with half-a-dozen crosses and heaped with flowers under the pear-tree on the south wall. Here is where the mouse was buried; here where the starling; and here the rabbit’s skull. They all lie there under the earth in boxes, as you and I will lie, expecting the Last Trump. The robins are not kinder to the “friendless bodies of unburied men” than are children to the bodies of mice and birds. Here the ghost of no creature haunts reproaching us with the absence of a tomb, as the dead sailor washed up on an alien shore reproaches us so often in the pages of The Greek Anthology. There is a procession to the grave and all due ceremony. There is even a funeral service. Over the starling, perhaps, it lacked something in appropriateness. The buriers meant well however. Their favourite in verse at the time was Lars Porsena of Clusium, and they gave the starling the best they knew—gave it to him from beginning to end. What he made of it, there is no telling: he is, it is said an impressionable bird, though something of a satirist. Someone, overhearing them, recommended a briefer and more fitting service for the future. The young thrush had the benefit of the advice. He was laid to his last rest with the recitation of that noblest of valedictories: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” over his tomb. He is now gone where there is no cat or parent to disturb. The priests who buried him declare that he has been turned into a golden nightingale, and that there must be no noise or romping in the garden for three days, as not till then will he have arrived safely at the Appleiades. That is the name they give to the Pleiades—the seven golden islands whither pass the souls of dead mice and birds and dolls and where Scarlatti lives and where you, too, may expect to go if you please them. Even the black cat will probably go there—one’s own black cat. But not the neighbour’s cat—the reddish-brown one—thief, murderer and beast. It is the neighbour’s cat that makes one believe there is a hell.

Short is the memory of man, however. Shorter the memory of children. There is no gloom that can withstand May pouring itself out in the deep blue of anchusa and the paler blue of lupin, gushing out in the yellow of laburnum, tossing like the tides in the wind. One is gloomy, perhaps, when one looks at the lettuces and sees how slow is their growth. Watching a plant grow is like watching a kettle boil. It seems to take æons. The patience of gardeners always astonishes me. Were gardening my profession, I should spend half my time inventing schemes for making plants grow up in a night like Jonah’s gourd. I should not mind about parsnips. A parsnip might mature as slowly as an oak and live as long for all I care. There is something, it may be, to be said for parsnips, as there is something, it may be, to be said for Mr Bonar Law. But I do not know it. They do not even tempt the slugs and the leather-jackets away from the lettuces. There is nothing that puzzles one more in a friend than if he confesses to a taste for parsnips. Immediately, a gulf yawns deeper than could be caused by any confession of religious or moral eccentricity. One’s sympathies instinctively close up like a sea-anemone touched by a child’s finger. Yet people eat them. All that you and I know about them is that kind words do not butter them; but, if you go to Covent Garden at the right time of the year, you will undoubtedly find them being sold for food. Why should they make one gloomy, however, seeing that one has successfully excluded them from one’s garden? Perhaps one is gloomy because of the reflection that there must be many other gardens in which they are growing. Gloom of this kind, however, is mere philanthropy. Turn your eyes, instead, to the strawberry-flowers and think of June. Consider the broad beans and the young peas safe amid their tall stakes. Consider even the spring onions. Is it any wonder that the chaffinch sings and the wren is operatic on the thither side of the garden wall? High in the air the swifts scream, as they rush here and there after their prey, like polo teams galloping, pulling up, scrimmaging, turning, and off on the gallop again. The swift is an evil-looking bird, but playful. He has none of the grace of the swallow, for he cannot fold his wings, and he is black as a devil-worshipper. Still, he knows more of sport than most of the birds. I suspect that those rushing companions are not merely bent on food but have chosen out one individual insect for their pursuit like a ball in a game. Otherwise, why such excitement? There are billions of insects to be had for the mere asking. The fly-catcher knows this. He can spend an hour at a meal without ever flying more than ten yards from his bough. Still, one rejoices in the energy of the swift. One wishes the greenfinch had a little of it. The yellow splashes on his wings are undoubtedly delightful, but why will he perch so long in the acacia wailing like a sick cricket? And why did Wordsworth write a poem in praise of him? Probably he mistook some other bird for him. Poets are like that. Or perhaps he liked a noise like the voice of a sick cricket. One can never tell with Wordsworth. He had a cuckoo-clock.

Featured: Le printemps (Spring), by Claude Monet; painted in 1886.

A Spring Harvest

Geoffrey Bache Smith (1894 – 1916) was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien and fellow member of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). Smith excelled in Latin and French. When the First World War broke out, he joined up in 1914 and in 1915 was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. On November 29, 1916, his battalion was shelled and he received a wound in the arm from a shell fragment. The injury proved fatal and Smith died of complications in the early hours of December 2nd. He was 22 years of age and is buried in Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery, Saulty, France.

In 1918, Tolkien gathered Smith’s poetry and published it as a collection entitled, A Spring Harvest. He added a brief “Note”:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

“The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.

J. R. R. T.


To a Dürer Drawing of Antwerp Harbour

Figured by Dürer’s magic hand wast thou,
That, lightning-like, traced on the lucid page
Rough, careless lines, with wizardry so sage
That yet the whole was fair, I know not how:
Ships of gaunt masts, and stark, sea-smitten prow,
Idle, yet soon again to sweep the main
In the swift service of old merchants’ gain,
Where are ye now, alas, where are ye now?
Gone are ye all, and vanished very long,
Sunk with great glory in the storied wars,
Or conquered by the leaping breakers wild:
And yet we love your image, like some song
That tells of ancient days and high, because
Old Dürer looked upon you once and smiled.


Schumann: Erstes Verlust

O, dreary fall the leaves,
The withered leaves;
Among the trees
Complains the breeze,
That still bereaves.

All silent lies the mere,
The silver mere,
In saddest wise
Reflecting skies
Forlorn and sere.

Would autumn had not claimed its own
And would the swallows had not flown.

Skies overcast!
Leaves falling fast!
And she has passed
And left the woodland strown,
The woodland strown,
The silver mere,
The dying year,
And me alone.

Skies overcast!
Leaves falling fast!
Does she that passed
Dream of the woodland strown,
The woodland strown,
The silver mere,
The dying year,
And me alone?


Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves
And whirls them from the autumn tree
Is grateful to the ship that cleaves
With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play
Like children in a garden close:
A postern bars the outward way
And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,
A little laughter, and some tears,
These are sufficiency to fill
The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves
His unimagined strength, and we
Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,
Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.


Songs on the Downs


This is the road the Romans made,
This track half lost in the green hills,
Or fading in a forest-glade
’Mid violets and daffodils.

The years have fallen like dead leaves,
Unwept, uncounted, and unstayed
(Such as the autumn tempest thieves),
Since first this road the Romans made.


A miser lives within this house,
His patron saint’s the gnawing mouse,
And there’s no peace upon his brows.

A many ancient trees and thin
Do fold the place their shade within,
And moan, as for remembered sin.


“Dark is the World our Fathers left us”

Dark is the world our fathers left us,
Wearily, greyly the long years flow,
Almost the gloom has of hope bereft us,
Far is the high gods’ song and low:

Sombre the crests of the mountains lonely,
Leafless, wind-ridden, moan the trees:
Down in the valleys is twilight only,
Twilight over the mourning seas:

Time was when earth was always golden,
Time was when skies were always clear:
Spirits and souls of the heroes olden,
Faint are cries from the darkness, hear!

Tear ye the veil of time asunder
Tear the veil, ’tis the gods’ command,
Hear we the sun-stricken breakers thunder
Over the shore where the heroes stand.


Dark is the world our fathers left us,
Heavily, greyly the long years flow,
Almost the gloom has of hope bereft us,
Far is the high gods’ song and low.


April 1916

Now spring is come upon the hills in France,
And all the trees are delicately fair,
As heeding not the great guns’ voice, by chance
Brought down the valley on a wandering air:
Now day by day upon the uplands bare
Do gentle, toiling horses draw the plough,
And birds sing often in the orchards where
Spring wantons it with blossoms on her brow—
Aye! but there is no peace in England now.

O little isle amid unquiet seas,
Though grisly messengers knock on many doors,
Though there be many storms among your trees
And all your banners rent with ancient wars;
Yet such a grace and majesty are yours
There be still some, whose glad heart suffereth
All hate can bring from her misgotten stores,
Telling themselves, so England’s self draw breath,
That’s all the happiness on this side death.


“Over the Hills and Hollows Green”

Over the hills and hollows green
The springtide air goes valiantly,
Where many sainted singing larks
And blessed primaveras be:

But bitterly the springtide air
Over the desert towns doth blow,
About whose torn and shattered streets
No more shall children’s footsteps go.



To-night the world is but a prison house,
And kindly ways, and all the springing grass
Are dungeon stones to him that may not pass
Among them, save with anguish on his brows:
And any wretched husbandman that ploughs
The upland acres in his habit spare
Is king, to those in palaces of glass
Who sit with grief and weariness for spouse.

O God, who madest first the world that we
Might happy live, and praise its pleasantness
In such wise as the angels never could,
Wherefore are hearts, fashioned so wondrously,
All spoiled and changed by human bitterness
Into the likenesses of stone and wood?


“O Long the Fiends of War shall dance”

O long the fiends of war shall dance
Upon the stricken fields of France:
And long and long their grisly cry
Shall echo up and smite the sky:
O long and long the tears of God
Shall fall upon a barren sod,
Save when, of His great clemency,
He gives men’s hearts in custody
Of grim old kindly Death, who knows
The mould is better than the rose.

Featured: Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917, Paul Nash; painted in 1918.

Clothes Make the Man, or: Jolly! Whilst One Still Can

“And how spruce you are, too!” said Mr. Pinch, surveying him with great pleasure. “Really, I didn’t think you were half such a tight-made fellow, Mark!”

“Thankee, Mr. Pinch. Pretty well for that, I believe. It’s not my fault, you know. With regard to being spruce, sir, that’s where it is, you see.” And here he looked particularly gloomy.

“Where what is?” Mr. Pinch demanded.

“Where the aggravation of it is. Any man may be in good spirits and good temper when he’s well dressed. There an’t much credit in that. If I was very ragged and very jolly, then I should begin to feel I had gained a point, Mr Pinch.”

“So you were singing just now, to bear up, as it were, against being well dressed, eh, Mark?” said Pinch.

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewitt.

Jolly! As Dicken’s Mark Tapley was ever wont to say in the face of adversity. And to suggest that France is now faced with adversity, well, the word is weak, very weak.

In the world at large, as opposed to the bell-jar purportedly shielding French officialdom from the people the sartorial judgment or lack thereof, exhibited by the barnaclescurrently clinging to power’s rock has been the subject of much hilarity – or might one say, amused contempt.

As a foreigner though, far be it from Papa Mendelssohn to join the chorus, or even to suggest that so consistent a pattern might reveal something of the wearers’ inner self. Rather leave it to the reader to wonder at the extent at which the “sow is being let out.” (OOPS! ! Sorry! Wrong Nord Stream country!) in what was formerly called the French Republic.

Here, a Secretary of State (Young Global Leader) appearing in public in what would appear to be a discoloured, heavily-used nylon négligé; there, the President of the French Parliament wearing a bullet-proof vest and crumpled ill-fitting clothing, posing in October 2023 alongside the Israeli “Defence” Forces, during a visit of questionable constitutionality; another Minister of middle age arriving for official meetings in a skimpy mini-dress and stiletto heels (Young Global Leader); the former Elysée spokesman (Ministerial rank) in what was formerly referred to as “come hither” clothing; and lest we forget, the eminently forgettable sixty-year-old Prime Minister laced up in black boots and skirts well above the knee… Now, Papa Mendelssohn has made it a point of honour to refrain from gossip, failing which a remark or two on the above individuals’ « private » life might not be amiss…

As for what passes for a gentleman in this country, well here we have suit-jackets so narrowly cut as to fail to close, revealing ill-cut, tissue-like shirts gaping over a belly; and below, skimpy trousers cut with a short, tight and narrow rise. One might as well wear diapers. As for grace in walk and gesture … . Of special note is the aristo-cat parading as Prime Minister, a chubby little chappie going by the name of Gabriel Nissim Attal de Couriss (Young Global Leader ; BTW, in the WEF, the proportion of European aristo-cats to plebes is off the charts). Whose number Wolfgang von Goethe had called a couple of centuries ago:

FAUST I, Scène de la Taverne d’Auerbach

Mephistopheles (sings)

Es war einmal ein König
Der hatt’ einen großen Floh
Den liebt’ er gar nicht wenig
Als wie seinen eig’nen Sohn.
Da rief er seinen Scheider,
Der Schneider kam heran;
“Da, miß dem Junker Kleider
Und miß ihm Hosen an!”


Vergeßt nur nicht dem Schneider einzuschärfen,
Daß er mir auf’s genauste mißt,
Und daß, so lieb sein Kopf ihm ist,
Die Hosen keine Falten werfen!

Mephistopheles (sings)

In Sammet und in Seide
War er nun angetan,
Hatte Bänder auf dem Kleide,
Hatt’ auch ein Kreuz daran,
Und war sogleich Minister,
Und hatt einen großen Stern.
Da wurden seine Geschwister
Bei Hof auch große Herrn.

Und Herrn and Frau’n am Hofe,
Die waren sehr geplagt,
Die Königin und die Zofe
Gestochen und genagt,
Und durften sie nicht knicken,
Und weg sie jucken nicht,
Wir knicken und ersticken
Doch gleich, wenn einer sticht.

English translation by Bayard Taylor (1825-1878)


There was a king once reigning,
Who had a big black flea,
And loved him past explaining,
As his own son were he.
He called his man of stitches;
The tailor came straightway:
Here, measure the lad for breeches.
And measure his coat, I say!


But mind, allow the tailor no caprices:
Enjoin upon him, as his head is dear,
To most exactly measure, sew and shear,
So that the breeches have no creases!


In silk and velvet gleaming
He now was wholly drest–
Had a coat with ribbons streaming,
A cross upon his breast.
He had the first of stations,
A minister’s star and name;
And also all his relations
Great lords at court became.

And the lords and ladies of honor
Were plagued, awake and in bed;
The queen she got them upon her,
The maids were bitten and bled.
And they did not dare to brush them,
Or scratch them, day or night:
We crack them and we crush them,
At once, whene’er they bite.

And to end on Jolly!

Es war einmal ein König (FAUST, Goethe/Beethoven)

Three versions:

Mikhail Golovushkin, bass

Hermann Prey, baritone

(piano accompaniment)

Peter Schreier, tenor

(piano accompaniment)

Mendelssohn Moses writes from France. 

Featured: Mephistopheles, by Paul Mathey; painted in 1888.

A Student of Rhetoric. The Field of Art History: From Curtius to Panofsky

Marc Fumaroli (1932–2020) was a leading French historian who greatly advanced our understanding of art, rhetoric, culture and all those by-ways of culture which gird Western civilization. He taught at the Sorbonne and then at the Collège de France and was member of the French Academy. He was the recipient of the famed Balzan Prize, as well as many other honors. This paper was delivered at the Panofsky Symposium, Princeton, on October 2nd, 1993. Philippe-Joseph Salazar introduces us to the master himself, whom he knew well.

It is sometimes necessary to come back to the original and seminal texts. It is a principle of philological wisdom which may be welcome in a Panofsky symposium. I shall therefore begin this tribute to the Princeton master with two quotations from very famous texts, whose literal meaning is often obscured or forgotten. The first one is the main source of 20th century modern Art theory: Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les Peintres cubistes, 1912. We read there:

“Avant tout, les artistes sont des hommes qui veulent devenir inhumains. Ils cherchent péniblement les traces de l’inhumanité, traces que l’on ne rencontre nulle part dans la nature. Elles sont la vérité, et en dehors d’elle nous ne connaissons aucune réalité.”

This sort of sublime and compelling utterance, which has thrilled several European generations, has today lost its immediate power. But I want to quote in chronological disorder, an even more famous text, dating back to 1637, which is found in Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode:

“Ceux qui ont le raisonnement le plus fort, et qui digèrent le mieux leurs pensées afin de les rendre claires et intelligibles, peuvent toujours le mieux persuader ce qu’ils proposent, encore qu’ ils ne parlassent que bas-breton et qu’ ils n’eussent jamais appris de rhétorique”.

Both these texts may be superposed. They have, each on their own level, a common summoning content. The tabula rasa presupposed by the Cartesian Ego is no less radical than the methodic inhumanité Apollinaire required of the creative self. Cartesian or Apollinarian modernity supposes the elimination of memory, and of rhetorical invention founded upon a shared sensus communis. This superposition has abrasive potentialities which are today all around us. I dare to say that “we” (in a commonsensical meaning alien to the “nous” of Apollinaire in 1912) are more inclined to agree with the scholar who published in 1940 The History of Art as a Humanistic discipline, than the imprudent, if great poet, who invited artists to become inhuman before the two world wars had taken place!

It took thirty years before The Meaning in the Visual Arts reached the French public, in Bernard Teyssèdre’s translation, in 1969. When I read it for the first time, I was struck by footnote 18. There Panofsky quoted at length a Letter to the Editor published in the New Statesman and Nation, in June 1937. Written by an English Stalinist, this letter considered that it was morally sound that Stalin should fire from Russian Universities professors who insisted on teaching Plato and the classics of Western philosophy. This sort of teaching according to this moralist, was aimed at barring students an immediate and fresh access to the study of Marxism, the modern scientific truth. Panofsky contented himself with the following brief comment:

“Needless to say, the works of Plato and other philosophers also play an antifascist role in such circumstances, and Fascists too recognize this fact.”

Twelve years earlier, there appeared the French translation of a book which, in the field of literary studies, has had a decisive impact upon my generation: European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, by Ernst Robert Curtius. In the Preface to the 1953 German edition (the second one) Curtius wrote:

“This book doesn’t content itself with scientific purposes; it attests a concern for maintaining Western civilization.”

And further, the great German Romanist, Curtius, quotes Georges Sainsbury’s sentence:

“Ancient without Modem is a stumbling block; Modern without Ancient is utter and irremediable foolishness.”

Recently I happened to read the unpublished, pre-World War Two correspondence, between Curtius and a French lady poet, Catherine Pozzi. It throws an extraordinary light upon the genesis of the Curtius’ masterwork, and its philosophical significance. Curtius, who did his best since 1918 to awaken the French from their own nationalist conceit, is just as indignant about the so-called Nazi national revolution in Germany. He describes with a stern lucidity the budding lawlessness of the new regime and its cynical violence. But he is a scholar, not a hero, and he wrote in 1933:

“Je fais un cours sur la littérature latine du Moyen Age qui mt intéresse passionnément… Je suis lassé de toute modernité. Les siècles obscurs me reposent… Je me tapis dans mon coin. Le présent me dégoûte. Je ne désespère pas de l’avenir. Il nous apportera de nouvelles révélations de beauté et de bonté. Mais vivrai-je pour les voir? La beauté incréée ne vaut-elle pas mieux? Mais comment y atteindre?
      A spark disturbs our cloud. But at
      present I realize more the cloud
      than the spark.”

The reading of this correspondence makes clear what an immense labour of hope and love this European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, started as an University course in 1928-1929, had been until the end of World War Two. When it appeared in German, in 1948, dedicated posthumously to Aby Warburg and to the great Romanist Gustav Grober, it looked like a dove above the ruined landscape of Europe. In his correspondence with Catherine Pozzi, Curtius mentions on several occasions their common friend James Joyce, then working on Finnegan’s Wake. He says to his correspondent that this new novel in order to be correctly understood, will require a full acquaintance with Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova. This first-hand information is retrospectively illuminating for me. When I first discovered Curtius’ masterwork, at the beginning of the Sixties, I was engaged in reading Vico’s Opening Lecture, On the Study Method of Our Time (1699), where the Napolitan humanist launches his first fierce attack against the excesses of Cartesianism, and defends the traditional primacy of rhetoric in the teachings of the humanities. Without being fully aware then of the issues at stake for us in these 17th century debates, I was nevertheless struck by the correspondence between Vico’s thesis, and the role a philologist like Curtius attributed in his masterwork to rhetoric as the frame for the correct reading and understanding of Western Literature. And when at last I had the opportunity to read, in the early seventies, Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts, I was ready to recognize the methodological kinship between the two German scholars—Aby Warburg’s disciple and Aby Warburg’s friend—who since the thirties had worked on both sides of the Atlantic, and Vico, whose Scienza Nuova is after all the Italian seed of German romantic historicism. I am personally convinced since then that this alliance between the Warburg school, the best of German Roman philology, and the most able spokesman for the Ancients in the 18th century, has been in our century the only spiritual home and pledge against the dominant anti-humanist trends at work in the modernist poetics of Apollinaire, as well as in the Cartesian Cogito. I should like to ponder upon this alliance today. There is more here, I think, than a nostalgic and respectful glance to the past and its scattered achievements: I see there a living moral and scientific force, a spark illuminating our own clouds.

So, before assessing how Panofsky’s method may be fused, without losing its own sharpness, with the same field of reunified and enlarged humanities as that of Curtius, I should like to recall briefly the latter’s originality and enduring contribution to literary studies. I hope that this suggestion of synthesis will be attuned to this symposium, and to our guest’s expectations, Professor Irving Lavin. I cannot forget that he has himself pointed out the same direction in his excellent Washington lecture: Art History as a Humanistic Discipline.

Nineteenth century positivism, the radical heir of Cartesianism, has split academic literary studies and teaching between res and verba. Res, related to the outside world, was left to biorgaphical and referential research; verba, related to the subjective talent of the author, was left to stylistical and philological scrutiny. This split reflected the Cartesian division between the knowing subject, related to positive science, and the sensitive or irrational one. The task of the literary historian was therefore to separate the expression of the subjective self, from the objective facts to which this expression may be related. Rhetoric was rejected from literary studies on the double grounds of a formalist hindrance to free subjective expression, and of an archaic cloud obscuring scientific truth. Curtius took a contrary stance, following the path opened up by Norden and Dilthey. He discovered—or rediscovered—that the Cartesian division between res and verba was not applicable to the res literaria. In the rhetorical regime of literature, res and verba, invention and style have been, in the Western past as in the contemporary most self-conscious writer, James Joyce, a continuum, not two ontologically different realms. Res were themselves language constructs in time, which have their home in collective memory, their kernels in classical texts, and their structure in the “places” among which rhetorical-literary invention moves in order to find the proper contours of the thing it has to say or write; order and style gave to the matter thus gathered the appropriate form in order to exert an effect upon the auditor or the hearer. Res, res literaria, were therefore forms of human experience accumulated and ordered by a collective and proleptic memory; it was there that the inventive ingenium had to journey before finding the right response to its own challenge, in prudent agreement with contemporary commonsense. This rhetorical artistic ingenium is not alienated, as the Cartesian raison or the Apollinarian génie, from its natural and social embodiment: it possesses the mnemonic resources to shape itself into a human form. Literature is the most complex and complete use of the rhetorical ingenium.

A friend and client of Carl-Gustav Jung, Curtius became a friend and admirer of Aby Warburg in 1928. He attended in the winter of that year, in Rome, at the Hertzian Library, the famous Warburg’s lecture about the great project Mnemosyne. Warburg died the next year. But Curtius, who had been enthusiast of the project, never forgot this decisive meeting. He found in the topoi re-used often with striking originality by medieval and Renaissance writers, the equivalent of Jung’s archetypes, of Warburg’s mythical places of memory, and of Vico’s universali fantastici, a vast and relatively autonomous frame of symbolic forms where the poetical, philosophical and social experience of the West, has been treasured and ever renewed since Antiquity. Even style, the persuasive new form that this mnemonic fount of accumulated wisdom has to receive in order to find new effectiveness, had its own objectivity and relative transcendence from circumstances and whims. Curtius enucleated in the medieval “longue durée,” what Vico called corsi and ricorsi of classic and mannerist styles, the first moulded on a few models of naturalness, the second eclectic and above all virtuoso, up to the point of ostentatious artificiality. Why can this rhetorical tradition be called humanist? Curtius hated the insipid and goody-goody abuse of the word. He insisted that humanist literature deserved this name because it was founded upon well-tried precedents crystallized in symbolic forms and classical texts, and confronting through them the past experience of humanity with the new, contemporary one. Time transfigured in Space was the compass of European wisdom. Antihumanism, either in the Cartesian school of modernism, or in Apollinaire’s, abstracted human reason or unreason from any reliance on the scale of wisdom summarized and symbolized in the literary tradition.

Far from being limited to medieval Latin Europe, this rhetorical approach, and the method of study it implies, could, and has been since Curtius, extended to Early Modern and Modern literature. If today we expect a renewal of literary studies in France, after the failure of the so-called sciences humaines, it will obviously be in the Curtian line. I am happy to say that I work in perfect intellectual agreement with Curtius’ best pupil, Harald Weinrich, who is German, and despite his nationality, if I may use that very inappropriate clausula, my full-time colleague at the Collège de France.

Why does Art history, as exemplified by Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts relate so naturally with literature history as exemplified by Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages? This is the question which haunted me since my first reading of Panofsky, and it is, I think, a good question to raise today if we agree that, at the end of this century, when the modernist credo has become less credible, the future lies in a wise reunification and renewal of the humanities.

It is not so much, in my view, their common philological and critical exactness, nor their common use of definite concepts, like classic and mannerist, that resume the kinship between Panofsky as Art historian and Curtius as a historian of Literature. It may be correctly assumed that this common ground of textual acribia was the general heritage of European and German Roman philology. What brings them so close, in spite of their specialized fields, visual images and literary texts, is their common rupture with the positivist assumptions of modern history and philology. This positivist rationalism could easily be associated with nationalism, which is absent in the generous Romanist Curtius and is subtly derided in Panofsky’s polemics, for example when he stresses the indebtedness of Albrecht Dürer’s classicism to Quattrocento Italian artists. The anti-positivist stand, in both Panofsky and Curtius, is manifest above all in their common reliance upon rhetorical notions in describing and understanding the working of the topical and inventive imagination. Both, before any theory, were magnificent performers of what they tried, as historians, to resurrect. Curtius, not only in his correspondence and essays, but in his scientific work as well, is a foremost and virtuoso writer. Panofsky’s own humanity combines moral insight and literary grace: he knows not only how to prove, but how to revive the contradictory human facets of his subjects, their natural evidence. In his magnificent piece about Suger, Panofsky exposes the elusive personality of the Abbot of Saint-Denis to the proof of the different places of human experience, character, temperament, national type, social persona, culture, taste, and his narrative synthesis, imbued with humour and sympathy, equals the art of the best novelists by its power of bringing alive a superb example of balanced and ogival humanity. It is a scientific, literary and moral portrait, it is history, it is history of art, at their best at one and the same time. But Panofsky’s rhetoric was inseparable, like Antique and Renaissance rhetoric he understood as few other did, from the philosophical quest for truth. This philosophical background, far from being impaired by literary skills, is serenely asserted in the concluding chapter of The Meaning in the Visual Arts. Cassirer’s friend quotes Goethe and Kant, and locates himself in a tradition of thought which goes back to Cicero’s New Academy. This tradition allows him to relate artistic and literary invention to the same memory. This memory, vital and ideal at the same time, harbours symbolic forms which may be mirrored in texts as well as in visual works, and generate plastic or literary eloquence. Humanistic emblematic language combined both regimes of expression. The memory-imagination is a store of “universals” which are not deduced from reality, by discursive abstractions, but give form and meaning to nature, through intuitive synthesis. This harvest of mnemonic forms allows a mutual understanding and a reciprocal stimulation between inventors of texts and inventors of images. It implies, between literary texts and visual images, rhetorical operations such as transposition, interpretation, variation and combination.

The description Panofsky gives of the genesis of Dürer’s etchings or drawings does not rely only upon logical deductions: it reconstructs the poetic logic of imaginative invention, according to the four major rhetorical figures: metaphor, metonymy, catachresis, and irony-allegory. The last chapter of The Meaning is the birthplace of Panofsky’s major achievement as a philosopher-historian of art: Idea, a book that fortunately reached France much earlier than its belated translation, in 1983, may let us to believe this. The influence of this book on French literary studies cannot be overstated. It has merged with the influence of the Latinist and Romanist Alain Michel, who has renewed Ciceronian studies along the same line as Panofsky. Since the 19th century the major role of Cicero in the Western tradition has been generally understated, notably in France. Cicero has been viewed as a rhetorician and a translator: he could not be an original thinker. Michel has shown that the Ciceronian synthesis of rhetoric and philosophy, of Aristotle-ism and Platonism, was an original Roman achievement, and a fertile and enduring one. We may now trace, through Renaissance and Renascences, corsi and ricorsi, the seminal and central function of Cicero in the development of Western thought, literature and arts. Vico’s Scienza Nuova has been, in full Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns, the most powerful re-assertor of this humanist tradition. What Panofsky’s Idea revealed to us, was the pregnancy of this tradition and its fertility in European Renaissance Art. Aristotelian pragmatism combined with Platonic idealism, according to the liberal Ciceronian synthesis, allowed experience of the phenomenal world to be enlightened and shaped by proleptic Forms, themselves inherited from the collective experience of Western humanity. These Forms are not a logically deduced system, but a Theater of memory where ingenious invention may find the matter and the models of new ideas, responding accordingly to time, person and place, in the everchanging world of human history. Panofsky insisted upon the aesthetic flexibility of the Ciceronian philosophic rhetoric, able to sustain as well classicism as mannerism. He showed convincingly its liberal and shifting fecundity, capable of thinking unity and multiplicity at the same time. But what emerges from Panofsky’s Idea, as well as from recent French studies on rhetoric, is the common ground that this new understanding of Ciceronism offers for literary and artistic studies. Modern Art theory, in spite of its debt to a poet, Apollinaire, has insisted upon the unbridgeable gulf between plastic and literary forms, between the visible and the word. This view, in a less systematic version, was not unknown to the rhetorical tradition. It is a founding presupposed principle of Ciceronian rhetoric, reasserted by Vico, that human experience ranges well beyond language, and that by its multifaceted and ingenious figures rhetorical invention essays what escapes unilateral words. The visual arts therefore offer another order of figures able to mean what is beyond the reach of words. But artistic invention, unless it claims to be creation ex nihilo, is no less rhetorical than that of the orator or the poet. Their invention draws upon a common mnemonic world of “places,” and symbolic forms, mapping the multiple richness of human experience. And their style, through metaphorical transpositions, may be tasted and evaluated according to analogous standards. At least if we intend to reconstruct the meaning of works, literary or visual, invented according to these rhetorical assumptions, we may and we must learn again how a Rubens painting could resound with Seneca’s Stoic amble or Ovid’s Epicurean savours. Panofsky’s own literary learning and sensitivity plays a major part in his reconstructing the full intended meaning and aesthetics effects of Old Master works.

There are, in the Western tradition, departures from the main Ciceronian line. Panofsky, like Curtius, was perfectly aware of this. Curtius has devoted brilliant pages to the theological domination of 12th and 13th century learning. Panofsky has devoted a major book to the scholastic background of the invention of gothic style. The Cartesian Ego, which pretends to do away with rhetoric, has been the cornerstone of a new rationalist rhetoric, which has been immensely productive, and which is the background of neo-classical aesthetics. The Rimbaldian Je est un autre is no less rhetorical, as Apollinaire’s Peintres cubistes, a topical and tropical text, shows abundantly. But even these departures and ruptures can be measured and understood in relation with, or in reaction against, the main liberal tradition of the West, which after all is best qualified to understand the whole gamut of the human experience, since its central assumption is the infinite variety of humanity and of its access to form in different times, places and persons.

I apologize for this rather too allusive apologetics for a prospective Scienza Nuova of which Panofsky and Curtius have been the forerunners in this century. I would have preferred to content myself with listening to the discourse that the greatest French Warburgian, the late André Chastel, should have delivered today in this room. I hope I have been faithful to the living and burgeoning legacy of these Masters.

(last corrections made on September 22, 1993)

Leibniz’s The Theodicy, or the Dystopia of a World without Tears

Leibniz’s theodicy, according to which, our world is the best it can be has often been mocked by progress-mongers like Voltaire. How, indeed, can we justify the existence of a good God and a harmonious world when, on the contrary, the latter contains so many misfortunes? This question, less heard than it might seem, lies at the heart of the works of Dostoevsky and Aldous Huxley, who question the truly utopian nature of a society without tears. Would not a world without tribulations be a world deprived of freedom and poetry?

In The Theodicy, the philosopher Leibniz sought to demonstrate that we live in “the best of all possible worlds,” a claim that earned him much ridicule, starting with Voltaire. In Candide, Voltaire ironized the naïveté of Leibnizian optimism through the character of Pangloss, who repeats at every turn “everything’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” How could anyone believe that the best of all possible worlds existed, given the wars and epidemics, the misery and death? For Voltaire, the world cannot be said to be the best it can be as long as the question of Evil remains.

“One day, all will be well, that is our hope / All is well today, that is the illusion.” In these verses, written after the Lisbon earthquake in November 1755, a catastrophe that claimed between 50,000 and 70,000 lives, Voltaire reaffirmed the idea that is at the heart of the Enlightenment: the perfectibility of the human race, the march of progress towards a world free of “useless pain,” towards a “Christianity without tears,” to quote Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. To get there, we must, like Candide, “cultivate our own garden,” working to establish human happiness here on earth rather than in the next world. Yet Leibniz is not blissfully optimistic, nor is he blind to suffering or injustice. Voltaire pretends not to have understood Leibniz’s idea that Evil is necessary for the Best. “It is true that we can imagine possible worlds without sin or misfortune, and we could make novels and utopias out of them… but these same worlds would be much inferior in goodness to our own,” comments Leibniz in his The Theodicy. These utopias, these novels, are what we find in the writings of Aldous Huxley and Dostoyevsky.

Towards a Christianity without Tears

Indeed, we can reread Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece Brave New World as a hermeneutic of this controversy between Leibnizian and Voltairian ideas. From this perspective, the title translated into French [Le Meilleur des mondes ] is perhaps more meaningful than the original Brave New World. The novel, undoubtedly less Manichean than it appears (less so than George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, to which it is often compared), deals with the establishment of an earthly Jerusalem, a system that rationally defines human happiness.

Moreover, Huxley does not dispute the eutopic character of Fordian civilization, i.e., its happiness. The new world state he has imagined truly brings happiness to mankind. Its Controller, Mustapha Mond, affirms: “The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off, they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death.” The happiness Voltaire had hoped for has finally arrived. But this “never grandiose” happiness can only be established at the price of renouncing “high art,” freedom, nobility, heroism, poetry, danger, sin, in a word, Shakespeare, everything that, for the Controller, is merely “overcompensations for misery.” For the Controller, if Edmund, the character in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, had known Fordian civilization, he would undoubtedly have renounced his tragic and grandiose destiny for a seat in an inflatable armchair, a sexual partner and the harmless drug Soma.

As a counterpoint to this end-of-history civilization, a reserve of savages, as if placed in a jar, bears witness for the new man to what the free world was, the world before its rationalization. Here, animality confronts sterilization. Misery, old age, solitude, cruelty and whipping still reign on the Reservation. This world may seem crueler than the Fordist World State, but contrary to what the Controller thinks, Edmund may not give up his destiny. John, the savage who lived on the Reservation, has known anguish and tears. He has known Lisbon, he has found Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is worth Lisbon to him. For Othello, he goes so far as to “[claim] the right to be unhappy” from the Controller. In his view, the best of all worlds is not one that “[gets rid of] everything unpleasant”, but one that “[learns] to live with it”. The best of all worlds is one of nobility rather than ease. For the savage, “Othello is better than those feelies.” No Othello without passion, no passion without suffering. Here is Leibniz: a world without unhappiness would not be as good as ours.

Is Shakespeare Worth Children’s Suffering?

The question, then, is no longer, as Dostoyevsky thought, whether Shakespeare is worth a pair of boots [“The question that divides us all boils down to this: which is prettier, Shakespeare or a pair of boots?”—The Demons]—the answer is all too familiar—but, as Huxley wrote, whether Shakespeare is worth “the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” If Shakespeare is worth the unhappiness, then let us affirm with Leibniz that we live in the best of all possible worlds. If not, let us swallow that blue Soma pill they are handing us.

It’ is the same Cornelian dilemma that defeats Ivan’s reason in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. On the one hand, Ivan revolts against the Leibnizian idea that a greater good can justify an evil. Nothing, for Ivan, not even the perfect happiness of all, “higher harmony” or Truth justifies the tears of a single child. Nothing great or beautiful can come of children’s suffering, only disgust and rejection. Who can remain insensitive to the terrible account he gives of this little girl whipped and trampled every day, forced by her own parents to eat her own excrement, beating her chest and calling for help from a “Good God” who never comes? Or the boy who was fed to the dogs in front of his mother? Ivan refuses to allow this “absurdity” to promise a better plan, unless the loving God the little girl invokes is no better than Job’s cruel, vengeful God.

On the other hand, Ivan also refuses the Soma, the “earthly bread” that the terrible figure of the Inquisitor—whom he invented to solve the problem of evil—offers man in exchange for his freedom. To make man happy, to “lighten his burden with love,” the Grand Inquisitor, like Mustapha Mond, is ready to renounce his own happiness and salvation [The Controller smiled. “That’s how I paid. By choosing to serve happiness. Other people’s—not mine”]. Ivan has guessed the earthly consequences of establishing Voltaire’s City: any attempt to rid the world of its misery and suffering can only lead to an even more absurd materialistic tyranny, whether consumerist, as in Huxley, or socialist, as professed in 19th-century Russia. The Grand Inquisitor is none other than the counterfeit double of the good shepherd he faces; his caricature who treats humanity not as a flock where each sheep has a priceless and promising value, but as mere cattle. Ivan recognizes the devil in the Inquisitor.

Take Up Your Cross…

In the naïveté of his twenty-three years, Ivan was full of love for life, that “enchanted cup” in which he “[became] intoxicated with tenderness” before heroism, the ideal and the “tender shoots of spring.” He wanted to live, “even in spite of logic,” without looking for meaning in his life. Yet he cannot help it—Ivan just does not know how to live; he is not Dimitri, his brother, the figure of the pure savage. [Dimitri, rather than Shakespeare, quotes the poets Goethe: “Man, be noble!” or Schiller: “Turn chaos into suns,” but all from the same impulse]. Though he loses his faith, he does not believe salvation is possible without God. Though an atheist, he has none of the cynicism of Rakitin or Chigalev in The Demons. If heavenly happiness disgusts him as long as a single child experiences hell here below, earthly happiness is even more repugnant to him if it comes at the price of human stupidity.

To deprive man of his freedom, even if it is for his own good, or to grant it to him, even if it means that he will abuse it and make his children suffer, is always too high a price for Ivan, who is incapable of simply relying on God, like his younger brother Alyosha, who, although frightened for a moment by his elder brother’s words, answers, like John in Brave New World: “I want to suffer.” Alyosha does not know how to respond to Ivan’s science, but he does know how to forgive, and retains faith in a God who became incarnate to share our pain and misfortune. In Brave New World, the Bible is hidden from men, locked away with Shakespeare. But “if we drive God from the earth, we’ll meet him underground!” exclaims Dostoyevsky’s Dimitri, whose soul is resurrected when he is condemned to the mines. A tragic hymn to the God of joy rises from the underground ruins of Lisbon, and Leibniz lends his voice to it: “And Jesus wept” (John 11: 35). There is no Christianity without tears.

Jean Chamaillet studied history at the University of Angers.

Featured: The Bridge in-curve, by Grace Cossington Smith; painted in 1930.

Musician? Mathematician? Or Murderer?

Der Prinz.
Was ist sonst? Etwas zu unterschreiben?

Camillo Rota, his secretary.
Ein Todesurteil wäre zu unterschreiben.

Der Prinz.
Recht gern.—Nur her! geschwind.

Camillo Rota (stutzig und den Prinzen starr ansehend).
Ein Todesurteil—sagt’ ich.

Der Prinz.
Ich höre ja wohl.—Es könnte schon geschehen sein. Ich bin eilig.

Camillo Rota (seine Schriften nachsehend).
Nun hab ich es doch wohl nicht mitgenommen!—Verzeihen Sie, gnädiger Herr.—Es kann Anstand damit haben bis morgen.

Der Prinz.
Auch das!—Packen Sie nur zusammen; ich muß fort—Morgen,
Rota, ein Mehres! (Geht ab.)

Camillo Rota (den Kopf schüttelnd, indem er die Papiere zu sich nimmt und abgeht).
Recht gern?—Ein Todesurteil recht gern?—Ich hätt’ es ihn in diesem Augenblicke nicht mögen unterschreiben lassen, und wenn es den Mörder meines einzigen Sohnes betroffen hätte.—Recht gern! Recht gern!—Es geht mir durch die Seele dieses gräßliche Recht gern!

Anything else, anything needs signing?
A death warrant, subject to Your Highness’s signature.
Perfectly happy to do so! – Show here ! Quick!
CAMILLO (starting, looking fixedly at the Prince).
A death warrant, I said.
I’ve quite understood. It might have already been dealt with. I am in haste.
CAMILLO (looking at his papers).
It seems I haven’t the warrant with me. Begging Your Highness’ indulgence. Tomorrow will do.
Let it be then. Gather these papers up. I must away. We’ll see to the rest later, Rota.
CAMILLO (shaking his head, as he collects the papers).
“Perfectly happy to do so!”–A death warrant, Perfectly happy to do so! At such a moment, I would not have had him sign, had the murderer struck down mine own son.–“Perfectly happy to do so!” The words cut through my soul. (Exit.)

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Emilia Galotti.

Until the 20th Century, when Palestine suddenly found herself a target to thousands of usurpers, likely Aryan in origin but purportedly adhering to an ancient Semitic belief, others of our “tribe” had been celebrated throughout the world for two disciplines: music, and mathematics. Residing as he does on the art world’s fringes, Mendelssohn has little acquaintance with the latter science. But music…

Today, faced with the jubilation amongst the Jabotinski soldiers brought up on the Holocaust Education Project as they raze Gaza and put her people to the sword, it may not be otiose to review the thoughts, feelings and intimations of immortality once prevalent in Europe and more especially in Judaism. Bearing in mind that our tiny sect of dissidents, day-dreamers and free-thinkers sheltered under the wing of a more advanced religion eschewing the notion of vengeance, nämlich Christianity, which, before sinking beneath the waves in 1914, permeated life both East and West of the Urals.


Can one imagine Franz Schubert joining the Jabotinski forces to perpetrate obscene murders in Gaza? Obvious perhaps the answer, less obvious the cause, which lies in the structure of the musician’s mind.

Without a word, an image, without surface, weight or volume, the greatest space-time density of all human activity occurs in classical music.

Breasting the waves between the pre-conscious and conscious, it is in music that thought manifests its changes, almost unobstructed.

Spurred on by love for one’s fellow man, swayed by no authority other than himself, the composer sets out a challenge with which he struggles, before inventing the next. Meanwhile heeding Wilhelm Furtwaengler’s warning to avoid outright abstraction, a domain where few men will care to follow.


In order to keep to actual matter that the reader can himself hear and judge, we propose to listen to Richard Tauber, an Austrian tenor of Mendelssohn’s er, “tribe,” in the tricky Lied number 8, from Schubert’s Winterreise, “Rückblick”—tricky, as making use of the technique I call S’legato—a quasi-legato where each note is detached as though spoken and nearly as distinctly as though it were staccato. In this recording made sometime in the 1920s, chosen for its singular qualities (although the wax imprint is fresher on other recordings), Tauber’s pianist is probably a Russian coreligionary, Mischa Spoliansky.

Straight off, one acknowledges that Tauber’s marked Austrian accent, flamboyant personality and above all, style of singing—idiosyncratic perhaps but rock-solid—are completely out of the fashion, in favour of the current impersonal-arbitrary; but, as Forbes-Robertson said, “I know only the BAD old style, and the GOOD old style.”

Be that as it may, “Out of the fashion” is a conceit, while Richard Tauber is still considered to be amongst the most eminent singers of all time.

Unlike Fritz Wunderlich, for example, Tauber’s voice is neither notably beautiful nor melodious but rather proteiform, “all Things, to all Men” (1 Corinthians 9).

Although the song-line seems enormous, moving at will from the faintest ripple to a tiger-like bound, that is an illusion proper to a great artist: Tauber was no Heldentenor. The true volume was quite unsuited to Verismo or Wagner, not something Mendelssohn would deplore.


Now to “Rückblick” (Winterreise, Lied 8, Franz Schubert to Wilhelm Müller’s cycle of poems).

In Tauber’s interpretation—and Spoliansky hardly qualifies as a spare wheel!—the listener’s attention is drawn neither to the interpreters, the voice, the keyboard, the words of the poem nor even the score in and of itself but rather to the whole—”a single ardent thought,” as Alastair Macaulay once wrote. The Lied becomes a “thought-object,” an idea that takes to the open seas relative to Müller’s text, an idea intangible—but intelligible. The two artists’ submission to the idea allows the shifts (Schattierungen, Zwischentöne) that characterise Schubert to manifest; shifts that guide one’s thought to indefinite unknowns, the metaphorical “ferne Geliebte.” This, despite each word, each note, being clearly enunciated and given proper weight.

Most likely, song preceded spoken language, and thus at first, most languages were doubtless tone-languages, i.e., the same phonemes produce two or more words of different meaning, depending on the frequency. In the Indo-European group, although Swedish and Norwegian are readily acknowledged to be tone-languages, English is notoriously so. Black bird and blackbird are differentiated only by tone. As for words thought to be single-tone (cat, dog, day…), if one listen carefully, they have two or more tones. Within the Western system of tonal music, the singer remains within the perimeter traced by the overtone, halo, aura, Oberschwingung around each note, without exceeding a quarter-tone; the aura nevertheless exists, nor is it entirely under conscious control.

In the recording with Tauber here, while each verse has its fullness, the arrow necessarily falls on the verb. Take the words “glühten” and “geschehn.” In theory, F sharp/E on “glühten,” and G/ D on “geschehn.” However, around each of the verbs’ two notes, flits an aura. Whereas the nouns “Krähen” and “Bäll” (harshly stressed by most singers apart from Tauber) are marked with the little symbol for “accented,” these accents are less telling than the verbs “glühten” and “geschehn,” to which Tauber lends the halo or aura, faint, fleeting but there nevertheless.

A further, capital aspect pointed to by our coreligionary, the musicologist Elam Rotem: before the War, the strong beat on the melodic line—here, the voice-line—was not mechanically pasted onto the orchestral strong beat—here, the keyboard. There was nearly always a tiny and deliberate gap, a hiatus, leaving the soloist a certain freedom.

Plainly, rhythm and melody are the two more primitive components of music, while harmony and counterpoint occupy the higher planes. The moment a soloist aware of what he decides “staggers” the vocal line relative to the keyboard, a slight syncopation occurs and a slight dissonance as well. For example, the syllable “Krä” of Krähen, on E; rather than placing the Krä on the A-E chord of the keyboard, Tauber presses it closer to the dissonant E/F sharp of the keyboard chord—which adds something like a further “voice” to the keyboard + vocal lines.

With many such moments within scarcely two minutes’ space, Rückblick quits the domain of “charm” and “melody” for that of thought, where out of the dusk appear ideas and emotions which now strike us as quite foreign. Indeed, under the massed blows of Hollywood, video-games, pop-rock-techno pseudo-music and GAFAM entertainment, what Schubert and his like once represented have vanished from the Earth, rather like sparks flying towards us from stars and planets extinct thousands of years ago.

If, amongst our purported co-religionaries one were to meet up with an Artur Schnabel, a Richard Tauber, a Clara Haskil only… or perhaps even an Elam Rotem who sticks to his own kale-patch, namely, early Italian music… well, a Man may Dream! As it happens, more’s our rotten luck, we are saddled with the Recht Gern faction, the Hélène Gordon Lazareffs of this world who according to her magazine’s designer Peter Knapp, was wont to invite to Sunday fêtes at Louveciennes, most excellent company such as the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. And a Knapp can be found to boast of it.

Text of the Lied “Rückblick.”

Es brennt mir unter beiden Sohlen,
Tret’ ich auch schon auf Eis und Schnee,
Ich möcht’ nicht wieder Atem holen,
Bis ich nicht mehr die Türme seh’.

Hab’ mich an jeden Stein gestoßen,
So eilt’ ich zu der Stadt hinaus;
Die Krähen warfen Bäll’ und Schloßen
Auf meinen Hut von jedem Haus.

Wie anders hast du mich empfangen,
Du Stadt der Unbeständigkeit!
An deinen blanken Fenstern sangen
Die Lerch’ und Nachtigall im Streit.

Die runden Lindenbäume blühten,
Die klaren Rinnen rauschten hell,
Und ach, zwei Mädchenaugen glühten. –
Da war’s gescheh’n um dich, Gesell!

Kommt mir der Tag in die Gedanken,
Möcht’ ich noch einmal rückwärts seh’n,
Möcht’ ich zurücke wieder wanken,
Vor ihrem Hause stille steh’n.

The soles of both my feet burn,
Though I tread upon ice and snow,
I will not again catch my breath,
Until the towers I can no longer see.

I stumbled on every stone,
As I hurried out of the city;
Rooks threw bits of snow and hail
Upon my hat from every house.

How otherwise you greeted me,
You city of impermanence!
At your bare windows sang
The lark and nightingale in quarrel.

The round lindens were in bloom,
The clear gullies rippled brightly,
And, ah, two eyes aglow of a girl!
It was all over for you, my friend!

That day comes again to mind,
And I want to look back,
I want again to stumble back,
And stand still before her house.

Mendelssohn Moses writes from France. 

Featured: Richard Tauber, cigarette card, ca. 1932.

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 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.


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!



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.


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!


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…


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.