To the simple mind the mention of complication looks like a kind of malice

From an essay of Lionel Trilling’s on E.M. Forster, published in The Kenyon Review (Spring 1942, v.4, no. 2). The whole is only 13 pages and well worth the read.

Forster’s plots are always sharp and definite, for he expresses difference by means of struggle and struggle by means of open conflict so intense as to flare into melodrama and even into physical violence. Across each of his novels runs a barricade; the opposed forces on each side are Good and Evil in the forms of Life and Death, Light and Darkness, Fertility and Sterility, Courage and Respectability, Intelligence and Stupidity-all the great absolutes that are so dull when discussed in themselves. The comic manner, however, will not tolerate absolutes; it stands on the barricades and casts doubt on both sides. The fierce plots move forward to grand simplicities but the comic manner confuses the issue, forcing upon us the difficulties and complications of the moral fact. The plot suggests eternal division, the manner reconciliation; the plot speaks of clear certainties, the manner resolutely insists that nothing can be quite so simple. “Wash ye, make yourselves clean,” says the plot, and the manner murmurs, “If you can find the soap.”

Now, to the simple mind the mention of complication looks like a kind of malice, and to the mind under great stress the suggestion of something “behind” the apparent fact looks like a call to quietism, like mere shilly-shallying. And this is the judgment, I think, that a great many readers of the most enlightened sort are likely to pass on Forster. For he stands in a peculiar relation to what, for want of a better word, we may call the liberal tradition, that loose body of middle-class opinion which includes such ideas as progress, collectivism and humanitarianism. To this tradition Forster himself has long been committed; all his novels are politically and morally tendentious and always in the liberal direction. Yet he is deeply at odds with the liberal mind, and while liberal readers can go a long way with Forster, they can seldom go all the way. They can understand him when he attacks the manners and morals of the British middle class, when he speaks out for spontaneity of feeling, for the virtues of sexual fulfillment, for the values of intelligence; they go along with him when he speaks against the class system, satirizes soldiers and officials, questions the British Empire and attacks business ethics and the public schools. But sooner or later they begin to make reservations and draw back; they suspect that Forster is not quite playing their game, they feel that he is challenging them. And they are right. For all his long commitment to the doctrines of liberalism, Forster is at war with the liberal imagination.

It would be better to manufacture combs. What good to anyone to practise poetry.

Ceist! Cia do cheinneóchadh dán? by Mathghamhain Ó hIfearnáin, text from the Bardic Poetry Database and translation by Declan Kiberd from his Irish Classics:

A question! who will buy a poem, whose content is the proper knowledge of scholars! Will anyone accept or does anyone want a fine poem that will last forever?

Although this is a well-made poem, every fair from crossroads to crossroads have I walked through Munster with it – and no sale last year or this year.

A trade like this is no good to us, even though it may be sad to see it die. It would be better to manufacture combs. What good to anyone to practise poetry.

1 Ceist! cia do cheinneóchadh dán?
a chiall is ceirteólas suadh:
an ngéabhadh, nó an áil le haon,
dán saor do-bhéaradh go buan?

2 Gé dán sin go snadhmadh bhfis,
gach margadh ó chrois go crois
do shiobhail mé an Mhumhain leis –
ní breis é a-nuraidh ná a-nois.

3 D’éirneist gémadh beag an bonn,
níor chuir fear ná éinbhean ann,
níor luaidh aoinfhear créad dá chionn,
níor fhéagh liom Gaoidheal ná Gall.

4 Ceard mar so ni sochar dhún,
gé dochar a dol fa lár:
uaisle dul re déiniomh cíor –
ga bríogh d’éinfhior dul re dán?

5 Ní mhair Corc Chaisil ná Cian,
nár chaigil a gcrodh ná a luagh,
na réidhfhir ag díol na ndámh –
slán lé síol Éibhir mon-uar.

6 Geall bronnta níor beanadh dhíobh,
Cobhthach go teasda agus Tál:
iomdha drong diongbhaim dá luadh,
uaim anonn dá ndiongnainn dán.

7 Mé im luing cheannaigh ar gcaill laist
d’éis Chlann nGearailt do thuill teist:
ni chluinim-is cás rom loisg:
fás an toisg fá gcuirim ceist.

And some context (also Kiberd’s) for this poem of advice addressed to the poet’s own son:

There were many such begging letters, disguised as satiric lyrics, in this period of change before and after 1600. As old retainers of lords who no longer needed their ratification in order to rule, most poets suffered greatly. their position was rather like holders of contemporary academic doctorates who cannot find a market for their expertise and are compelled to take menial employment.


Reminds me of the Archpoet’s Fodere non debeo, quia sum scholaris.

Who fishes for the truth and has not the art

From Paradiso Canto XIII (109 starting), with Charles Singleton’s (prose) translation. I’ve checked the several commentaries I have on hand and a number of others through Dartmouth’s Dante Project and can’t find a single line addressing the possible origins or background of the metaphor chi pesca per lo vero e non ha l’arte, only explanations of the metaphor itself. It feels so biblical but I guess I’ve just always assumed a reference on relation to ‘fishers of men’ and the like. I’ve included at bottom Singleton’s gloss on the philosophers and, for curiosity, Cristoforo Landino’s painfully detailed explanation of the metaphor from his 1481 commentary.

E questo ti sia sempre piombo a’ piedi,
per farti mover lento com’ uom lasso
e al sì e al no che tu non vedi:

ché quelli è tra li stolti bene a basso,
che sanza distinzione afferma e nega
ne l’un così come ne l’altro passo;

perch’ elli ‘ncontra che più volte piega
l’oppinïon corrente in falsa parte,
e poi l’affetto l’intelletto lega.

E di ciò sono al mondo aperte prove
Parmenide, Melisso e Brisso e molti,
li quali andaro e non sapëan dove;

Vie più che ‘ndarno da riva si parte,
perché non torna tal qual e’ si move,
chi pesca per lo vero e non ha l’arte.

And let this ever be as lead to your feet, to make you slow, like a weary man, in moving either to the yes or the no which you see not; for he is right low down among the fools, alike in one and in the other case, who affirms or denies without distinguishing, because it happens that oftentimes hasty opinion inclines to the wrong side, and then fondness for it binds the intellect. Far worse than in vain does he leave the shore (since he returns not as he puts forth) who fishes for the truth and has not the art. And of this Parmenides, Melissus, Bryson, are open proofs to the world, as are the many others who went on but knew not whither.

The philosophers:

Parmenide: Parmenides, an early Greek philosopher, was born at Elea in Italy ca. 513 B.C. He is the chief representative of the Eleatic philosophy, in which he was followed by his disciple Zeno; he and Zeno, according to Plato, met Socrates in Athens in ca. 448 B.C. Parmenides wrote in verse his philosophical views On Nature, of which only fragments are extant. Melisso: Melissus, a philosopher of Samos who flourished ca. 441 B.C., was a follower of Parmenides. Only fragments of his writings are extant. Brisso: Bryson was a Greek philosopher mentioned by Aristotle as having attempted to square the circle, a problem which apparently he tried to solve dishonestly by non-geometrical methods (Soph. elench. I, 11, 171b; Anal. post. I, 9, 75b).

And Landino:

Viè più che ‘ndarno: la sententia è questa: possiamo dire che uno sia arriva, quando anchora non ha pensato se la chosa è vera o no; ma quando comincia a investigare, allhora si parte da riva et entra nel fiume. Adunque chome el pescatore se si parte da riva et non ha l’arte del pescare nè anchora gli strumenti apti si parte indarno per che non pigla, chosì chi si mette a investigare el vero sanza dialectica et philosophia et senza le scientie che gle ne possono mostrare s’affaticha indarno. Ma è anchora peggio perchè oltra al perdere la faticha, entra nello errore nel quale non era prima. Adunque è peggio che ‘l pescatore, perchè lui non piglando torna tale quale si partì. Ma chostui torna in piggior grado perchè ha falsa opinione la quale non havea prima.

Why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image

I’ve always assumed Melville’s reference to Narcissus (below) was of a very general sort – serving only as a means to activate a connection to his concluding ‘ungraspable phantom of life’ – but thinking on it a bit while reading Ovid’s version this morning it does seem an easy argument to push for a deeper connection. For instance, Ovid’s

quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas? (why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image) is a more than suitable reply to Ahab’s All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks speech in The Quarter-Deck. But the argument makes itself for anyone who cares so here are the passages side by side.

From ch. 1 (Loomings) of Moby Dick:


And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses 3.430, in the Loeb translation:

What he sees he knows not; but that which he sees he burns for, and the same delusion mocks and allures his eyes. O fondly foolish boy, why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image? What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. With you it comes, with you it stays, and it will go with you—if you can go.

quid videat, nescit; sed quod videt, uritur illo,
atque oculos idem, qui decipit, incitat error.
credule, quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas?
quod petis, est nusquam; quod amas, avertere, perdes!
ista repercussae, quam cernis, imaginis umbra est:
nil habet ista sui; tecum venitque manetque;
tecum discedet, si tu discedere possis!

According to Melville’s Marginalia Melville’s personal copy of Ovid no longer survives but there is a digitized copy of (a different printing) of that edition online at Hathitrust. Here’s the passage (pg 85, lines 495-500 of bk. 3, translated by Addison).

Nor knows he who it is his arms pursue
With eager clasps, but loves he knows not who.
What could, found youth, this helpless passion move?
What kindled in thee this unpitied love?
They own warm blush within the water glows,
With thee the color’d shadow comes and goes,
Its empty being on thyself relies;
Step thou aside and the frail charmer dies.

One would hope he also had access to the classic Arthur Golding edition – since it does a far better job of capturing the elements he’d want for Moby Dick:

He knowes not what it was he sawe. And yet the foolish elfe
Doth burne in ardent love thereof. The verie selfsame thing
That doth bewitch and blinde his eyes, encreaseth all his sting.
Thou fondling thou, why doest thou raught the fickle image so?
The thing thou seekest is not there. And if aside thou go,
The thing thou lovest straight is gone. It is none other matter
That thou doest see, than of thy selfe the shadow in the water.
The thing is nothing of it selfe: with thee it doth abide,
With thee it would departe if thou withdrew thy selfe aside.

A final note of passing interest- the Melville’s Marginalia site does preserve one bit of Melville’s engagement with Ovid – a marginal checkmark in Warton’s History of English Poetry next to the sentence which begins ‘The Elegies of Ovid, which convey the obscenities of the brothel in elegant language….’.

Peleus became annoyed

From the second Loeb volume of Hesiod in the collection of fragments – an amusing scholia from Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica about a lost work attributed (in antiquity) to Hesiod. A compilation of the more absurd of these would be very entertaining for a very small audience.

The author of the Aegimius says in Book 2 that Thetis cast the children she bore to Peleus into a cauldron of water since she wanted to find out whether they were mortal . . . And after many had been destroyed, Peleus became annoyed and prevented Achilles from being cast into the cauldron.

ὁ τὸν Αἰγίμιον ποιήσας ἐν δευτέρῳ φησίν, ὅτι ἡ Θέτις εἰς λέβητα ὕδατος ἔβαλλεν τοὺς ἐκ Πηλέως γεννωμένους, γνῶναι βουλομένη εἰ θνητοί εἰσιν . . . · καὶ δὴ πολλῶν διαφθαρέντων ἀγανακτῆσαι τὸν Πηλέα καὶ κωλῦσαι τὸν Ἀχιλλέα ἐμβληθῆναι εἰς λέβητα.

The verb used for Pelias’ emotion (ἀγανακτέω) is not the sort of terribly strong one you’d expect of a man whose wife seems to have made it a practice to boil/drown their children. Below is the LSJ entry.

ἀγᾰνακτ-έω, properly in physical sense,

  • Afeel a violent irritation, of the effects of cold on the body, Hp. Liqu. 2, cf. Heliod. ap. Orib. 46.7.8; of wine, ferment, Plu. 2.734e; so metaph., ζεῖ τε καὶ ἀ., of the soul, Pl. Phdr. 251c.
    • IImetaph., to be displeased, vexed, μηδʼ ἀγανάκτει Ar. V. 287; esp. show outward signs of grief, κλάων καὶ ἀ. Pl. Phd. 117d; τὰ σπλάγχνʼ ἀγανακτεῖ Ar. Ra. 1006, etc.; ἀ. ἐνθυμούμενος . . And. 4.18:—foll. by a relat., ἀ. ὅτι . . Antipho 4.2.1Lys. 3.3; ἀ. εἰ . ., ἐάν . . And. 1.139Pl. La. 194a.
      • 2c. dat. rei, to be vexed at a thing, θανάτῳ Pl. Phd. 63b, etc.; c. acc. neut., ib.64a; ἀ. ταῦτα, ὅτι . . Id. Euthphr. 4d; ἀ. ἐπί τινι Lys. 1.1Isoc. 16.49, etc.; ὑπέρ τινος Pl. Euthd. 283e, etc.; περί τινος Id. Ep. 349d; διά τι Id. Phd. 63c; πρός τι Epict. Ench. 4M.Ant. 7.66; and sts. c. gen. rei, AB 334.
      • 3to be vexed at or with a person, τινί X. HG 5.3.11; πρός τινα Plu. Cam. 28Diog.Oen. 68; κατά τινος Luc. Tim. 18:—c. part., to be angry at, ἀ. ἀποθνῄσκοντας Pl. Phd. 62e, cf. 67d.
    • IIIMed. in act. sense, aor. part. -ησάμενος Luc. Somn. 4; prob. in Palaeph. 40; ἠγανάκτηνται τῷ πράγματι Hyp. Fr. 70.

Because reading Racine widens your heart

From Jacqueline de Romilly‘s Les Roses de la Solitude -a couple of observations on Racine from her essay Le Jour de Bérénice – where, incidentally, she again confirms my pet theory that everyone who loves Racine loves Bérénice best. There is no translation of this book and I’m too lazy to do the honors for these passages so I’m using google translate’s surprisingly serviceable version:

…. le contraste entre la tragédie de Racine et sa transposition moderne et simplifiée. Mais cette différence consiste précisément dans le fait qu’il s’agit de sentiments qui se situent à un autre niveau que celui du quotidien et s’expriment dans un langage qui lui aussi se situe plus haut que le langage habituel. En sorte que l’essentiel n’est pas du tout de chercher à reconnaître ici ou là, dans tel sentiment isolé, quelque chose qui ressemble à notre vie quotidienne : il est de nous élever, par-delà tout ce que nous connaissons, à une image symbolique et resplendissante que le langage réveille en nous, par-delà toutes nos expériences.

…. the contrast between Racine’s tragedy and its modern and simplified transposition. But this difference consists precisely in the fact that it is a question of feelings which are situated at a different level than that of everyday life and are expressed in a language which is also situated higher than the usual language. So that the essential thing is not at all to seek to recognize here or there, in a certain isolated feeling, something which resembles our daily life: it is to raise ourselves, beyond all that we know, to a symbolic and resplendent image that language awakens in us, beyond all our experiences.

Je sais bien que j’avais éprouvé des sentiments personnels, qu’Antiochus m’avait serré le cœur. Mais pourquoi cela ? Pas parce que j’avais été moi-même Antiochus ; pas parce que j’avais soupiré en vain pour une princesse lointaine, pendant des années, non, bien sûr que non ! Je crois qu’il m’avait serré le cœur, parce que dans ma vie j’avais connu un Antiochus et que je m’étais sentie coupable envers lui ; que peut-être je le sens encore aujourd’hui. Mais c’est parce que la lecture de Racine vous élargit le cœur, qu’elle vous place au-dessus de votre propre vie, et vous aide à mieux mesurer la portée de ce qui vous a entouré, et qui, à présent, prend une dimension nouvelle. On ne « reconnaît » pas les sentiments qu’expriment les héros raciniens : on les découvre dans toute leur force et on les fait siens, s’ouvrant ainsi à tous les sentiments qu’il ne nous a pas toujours été donné de connaître.

I know very well that I had had personal feelings, that Antiochus had gripped my heart. But why is that? Not because I had been Antiochus myself; not because I had sighed in vain for a distant princess for years, no, of course not! I think he gripped my heart, because in my life I had known an Antiochus and felt guilty about him; that maybe I still feel it today. But that’s because reading Racine widens your heart, puts you above your own life, and helps you better understand the significance of what has surrounded you, and which is now taking hold. a new dimension. We do not “recognize” the feelings expressed by Racinian heroes: we discover them in all their strength and we make them our own, thus opening ourselves to all the feelings that we have not always been given to know.

And when Periclymenus became a bee and stood upon Heracles’ chariot…

A lengthier fragment of Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, from Glenn Most’s recent Loeb edition – which now seems far the better option over the old Merkelbach-West Fragmenta Hesiodea. This one (from fragment 31, pg 97) covers Nestor’s shapeshifting brother Periclymenus. For a 900 page book that deals in part with reconstructing Periclymenus and his relationship to Nestor I recommend Douglas Frame’s Hippota Nestor. There is some comedy of tone in that recommendation but it is truly an amazing piece of work, though nowhere close to the author’s earlier Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. Both are available online through the links thanks to the Center For Hellenic Studies’ kindly open scholarship policy.

I think a few letters of the Greek have dropped out in pasting but if you know what you’re doing it isn’t any issue. And if you don’t it isn’t any matter.

Happy he, to whom earth-shaking Poseidon gave gifts
of all kinds, for sometimes among the birds he appeared
as an eagle, and sometimes he became—a wonder to see—
an ant, and sometimes the splendid race of bees,
sometimes a snake, terrible and implacable; he received gifts
of all kinds, unnamable, which later ensnared him
by the will of Athena. He destroyed many other men
fighting around the wall of very glorious Neleus,
his father, and he brought many to black death
by killing them. But when Pallas Athena became angry with him,
she stopped him being the best. Unendurable grief [seized
Heracles’ force in his heart, for his troops were being destroyed.
Then, over against Heracles’ force,
sitting on the knob of the yoke, he strove for great deeds,
and said] he would halt horse-taming Heracles’ strength—
the fool, nor did he fear Zeus’ patient-minded son,
neither him nor his famous bow and arrows, which
Phoebus Apollo gave him.
But] then he came opposite Heracles’ force
] and to him bright-eyed Athena,
to Amphitryon’s son,] put the bow grasped firmly
in his hands, and] pointed out to him godlike Periclymenus
] mighty strength [
] he strung with his [own] hands
his bow, and a swift] arrow upon the twisted[ string

ὄλβιον, ὧι⌋ πόρε δῶρα Ποσειδάων ἐνοσίχθων
παντο⌋ῖ᾽, ἄλλ⌊ο⌋τε μὲν γὰρ ἐν ὀρνίθεσσι φάνεσκεν
15αἰετός,⌋ ἄλλοτε δ᾽ αὖ γινέσκετο, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι,
μύρμ⌋ηξ, ἄλλοτε δ᾽ αὖτε μελισσέων ἀγλαὰ φῦλα,
ἄλλο⌋τε δεινὸς ὄφις καὶ ἀμείλιχος· εἶχε δὲ δῶρα
παντ⌋οῖ᾽ οὐκ ὀνομαστά, τά μιν καὶ ἔπειτα δόλωσε
β⌊ο⌋υλ⌊ῆι⌋ Ἀθηναίης· πολέας δ᾽ ἀπόλεσσε καὶ ἄλλους
μαρνάμενος Νηλῆος ἀγακλειτοῦ περὶ τεῖχος
ο[ὗ] πατρός, πολέας δὲ μελαίνηι κηρὶ πέλασσε
κ]τείνων. ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δή οἱ ἀγάσσατο Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη,
πα]ῦσεν ἀριστεύοντα· βίην δ᾽ Ἡρακληείην
εἷ]λ᾽ ἄχος ἄτλητον κραδίην, ὤλλυντο δὲ λαοί.
ἤ]τοι ὁ μὲν ζυγοῦ ἄντα βίης Ἡρακληείης
ὀ]μφαλῶι ἑζόμενος μεγάλων ἐπεμαίετο ἔργω[ν,
φ]ῆ θ᾽ Ἡρακλῆος στήσειν μένος ἱπποδάμοιο·
νήπιος, οὐδ᾽ ἔδδεισε Διὸς ταλασίφρονα παῖδα,
αὐτὸν καὶ κλυτὰ τόξα, τά οἱ πόρε Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων.
ἀλλὰ] τοτ᾽ ἀντίος ἦλθε βίης Ἡρακληείης
´]ιας, τῶι δὲ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη
Ἀμφιτρυωνι]ηι θῆκ᾽ εὐσχεθὲς ἐν παλάμηισ[ι
τόξον, καί οἱ φρ]σσε Περικλύμενον θεοε[έα
]κεν κρατερὸν μένος α[
]μενος τάνυσεν χείρε[σσι φίληισι
τόξον, καὶ τα]χὺν ἰὸν ἐπὶ στρεπτῆς[νευρῆς

And his end according to a scholia on Iliad 2.336 (fragment 32)

And when he (i.e., Periclymenus) became a bee and stood upon Heracles’ chariot, Athena showed him to Heracles and made sure that he was killed . . . Hesiod tells the story in the Catalogues

καὶ δὴ γενόμενον αὐτὸν μέλισσαν καὶ στάντα ἐπὶ τοῦ Ἡρακλέους ἅρματος Ἀθηνᾶ δείξασα Ἡρακλεῖ ἐποίησεν ἀναιρεθῆναι. . .ἱστορεῖἩσίοδος ἐν Καταλόγοις.

These people are not the kind to lose themselves inside a painting

I fall into the bad rhythm of not posting for weeks at a time when too much of what I’m reading at any moment doesn’t lend itself to easy extracts. Such is today’s Ho Wang-Fo Was Saved from Marguerite Yourcenar’s Oriental Tales (Nouvelles Orientales) but it’s too nice to let pass – and reminiscent of my favorite Marcel Schwob tale of Paolo Uccello. I’m bad at summaries and it would anyway be better to read the brief whole (a different English translation than the one given below and done by Alberto Manguel in collaboration with Yourcenar) so all I’ll add is a spoiler warning.

You can also watch the animated adaptation here, though it’s French only.

Upon a sign from the Emperor’s little finger, two eunuchs respectfully brought forward the unfinished scroll on which Wang-Fa had outlined the image of the sea and the sky. Wang-Fa dried his tears and smiled, because that small sketch reminded him of his youth. Everything in it spoke of a fresh new spirit which Wang-Fa could no longer claim as his, and yet something was missing from it, because when Wang had painted it he had not yet looked long enough at the mountains or at the rocks bathing their naked flanks in the sea, and he had not yet penetrated deep enough into the sadness of the evening twilight. Wang-Fa selected one of the brushes which a slave held ready for him and began spreading wide strokes of blue onto the unfinished sea. A eunuch crouched by his feet, mixing the colors; he carried out his task with little skill, and more than ever Wang-Fa lamented the loss of his disciple Ling.

Wang began by adding a touch of pink to the tip of the wing of a cloud perched on a mountain. Then he painted onto the surface of the sea a few small lines that deepened the perfect feeling of calm. The jade floor became increasingly damp, but Wang-Fa, absorbed as he was in his painting, did not seem to notice that he was working with his feet in water.

The fragile rowboat grew under the strokes of the painter’s brush and now occupied the entire foreground of the silken scroll. The rhythmic sound of the oars rose suddenly in the distance, quick and eager like the beating of wings. The sound came nearer, gently filling the whole room, then ceased, and a few trembling drops appeared on the boatman’s oars. The red iron intended for Wang’s eyes lay extinguished on the executioner’s coals. The courtiers, motionless as etiquette required, stood in water up to their shoulders, trying to lift themselves onto the tips of their toes. The water finally reached the level of the imperial heart. The silence was so deep one could have heard a tear drop.

It was Ling. He wore his everyday robe, and his right sleeve still had a hole that he had not had time to mend that morning before the soldiers’ arrival. But around his neck was tied a strange red scarf.

Wang-Fo said to him softly, while he continued painting, “I thought you were dead.” “You being alive,” said Ling respectfully, “how could I have died?”

And he helped his master into the boat. The jade ceiling reflected itself in the water, so that Ling seemed to be inside a cave. The pigtails of submerged courtiers rippled up toward the surface like snakes, and the pale head of the Emperor floated like a lotus.

“Look at them,” said Wang-Fa sadly. “These wretches will die, if they are not dead already. I never thought there was enough water in the sea to drown an Emperor. What are we to do?”

“Master, have no fear,” murmured the disciple. “They will soon be dry again and will not even remember that their sleeves were ever wet. Only the Emperor will keep in his heart a little of the bitterness of the sea. These people are not the kind to lose themselves inside a painting.”

And the french.

Sur un signe du petit doigt de l’Empereur, deux eunuques apportèrent respectueusement la peinture inachevée où Wang-Fô avait tracé l’image de la mer et du ciel. Wang-Fô sécha ses larmes et sourit, car cette petite esquisse lui rappelait sa jeunesse. Tout y attestait une fraîcheur d’âme à laquelle Wang-Fô ne pouvait plus prétendre, mais il y manquait cependant quelque chose, car à l’époque où Wang l’avait peinte, il n’avait pas encore assez contemplé de montagnes, ni de rochers baignant dans la mer leurs flancs nus, et ne s’était pas assez pénétré de la tristesse du crépuscule. Wang-Fô choisit un des pinceaux que lui présentait un esclave et se mit à étendre sur la mer inachevée de larges coulées bleues. Un eunuque accroupi à ses pieds broyait les couleurs ; il s’acquittait assez mal de cette besogne, et plus que jamais Wang-Fô regretta son disciple Ling.

Wang commença par teinter de rose le bout de l’aile d’un nuage posé sur une montagne. Puis il ajouta à la surface de la mer de petites rides qui ne faisaient que rendre plus profond le sentiment de sa sérénité. Le pavement de jade devenait singulièrement humide, mais Wang-Fô, absorbé dans sa peinture, ne s’apercevait pas qu’il travaillait assis dans l’eau.

Le frêle canot grossi sous les coups de pinceau du peintre occupait maintenant tout le premier plan du rouleau de soie. Le bruit cadencé des rames s’éleva soudain dans la distance, rapide et vif comme un battement d’aile. Le bruit se rapprocha, emplit doucement toute la salle, puis cessa, et des gouttes tremblaient, immobiles, suspendues aux avirons du batelier. Depuis longtemps, le fer rouge destiné aux yeux de Wang s’était éteint sur le brasier du bourreau. Dans l’eau jusqu’aux épaules, les courtisans, immobilisés par l’étiquette, se soulevaient sur la pointe des pieds. L’eau atteignit enfin au niveau du cœur impérial. Le silence était si profond qu’on eût entendu tomber des larmes.

C’était bien Ling. Il avait sa vieille robe de tous les jours, et sa manche droite portait encore les traces d’un accroc qu’il n’avait pas eu le temps de réparer, le matin, avant l’arrivée des soldats. Mais il avait autour du cou une étrange écharpe rouge.

Wang-Fô lui dit doucement en continuant à peindre :

— Je te croyais mort.

— Vous vivant, dit respectueusement Ling, comment aurais-je pu mourir ?

Et il aida le maître à monter en barque. Le plafond de jade se reflétait sur l’eau, de sorte que Ling paraissait naviguer à l’intérieur d’une grotte. Les tresses des courtisans submergés ondulaient à la surface comme des serpents, et la tête pâle de l’Empereur flottait comme un lotus.

— Regarde, mon disciple, dit mélancoliquement Wang-Fô. Ces malheureux vont périr, si ce n’est déjà fait. Je ne me doutais pas qu’il y avait assez d’eau dans la mer pour noyer un Empereur. Que faire ?

— Ne crains rien, Maître, murmura le disciple. Bientôt, ils se trouveront à sec et ne se souviendront même pas que leur manche ait jamais été mouillée. Seul, l’Empereur gardera au cœur un peu d’amertume marine. Ces gens ne sont pas faits pour se perdre à l’intérieur d’une peinture.

Drink all the wine you need to get in the spirit of chasing a lion

From Georges Dumezil’s The Plight of a Sorcerer (pg. 99), cited from a French translation of a work of Al-Tha’alibi, Histoire des Rois des Perses (149-152):

One day, standing on the terrace of one of his palaces and contemplating the green fields that spread all around him, his eyes as far as they could see beheld nothing but greenery. While he feasted his eyes on the beauty of the scene, enchanted by the visible proof of cultivation, he spotted far away in a gap in the verdure something black on white. Having given orders to send a man there immediately to bring him an explanation of this, the messenger upon his return reported that a man going from one village to another, totally drunk, had fallen in the field like a dead body, and that a raven had swooped on him and plucked out his eyes. Kay Kobad, badly shaken by this, decreed a prohibition on wine drinking and a most severe punishment against offenders. And the people abstained from drinking wine for a certain time. Now it happened one day that a lion had escaped from the menagerie, and no one was able to stop it or bring it back until a young man who was passing through grabbed it by the ears, mounted it like a donkey and made it walk about tamely, then delivered it to it’s guardians. His adventure was reported to Kay Kobad, who was greatly astounded by it and said: “The young man must either be a fool or drunk.” He had him brought to him and said: “Let me know, without lying, how you could be so brave as to approach the lion and mount it, and you will be exempt from all blame.” The young man replied: “Know, O King, that I love a cousin who is to me the most precious thing in the world. I had my uncle’s promise that he would give her to me in marriage, but he broke his word and married her to someone else, because of my humble situation in life and my poverty. When I was told of this, I was on the point of killing myself and my despair was extreme. Well, my mother, who took pity on me, said: This, my son, is a grief that you cannot conquer except with three cups of wine, which will comfort you a bit.’ ‘How can I drink wine,’ I said to her, ‘considering the king’s interdiction?’ She said to me: ‘Drink in hiding, need legitimizes what is forbidden; besides, who would inform on you?’ Well, I had a few cups after having eaten some kebab, and came out with all the strength of wine, youth, and love, and I did my deed with the lion.” The king was greatly astonished. He sent for the young man’s uncle and ordered him to annul the marriage of his son-in-law and his daughter, and to marry her to his nephew. The uncle complied and Kay Kobad made him a present. The king took on the young man as his retainer and helped him overcome his destitution. Then he addressed the people with the following proclamation: “Drink all the wine you need to get in the spirit of chasing a lion, but be careful not to drink yourselves into a state where the ravens could pluck out your eyes!” The people then went back to their habit of drinking wine, but avoided complete drunkenness.