In his mind he placed himself in the future in order to look back at the present, which he viewed as the past.

From Luigi Pirandello’s A Character’s Tragedy (La tragedia d’un personaggio), English from Eleven Short Stories / Undici Novelle. The Italian is online in full here:

This past Sunday I went into my study, for the audience, a little later than usual.

A long novel that had been sent to me as a gift and had been waiting over a month for me to read it kept me up till three in the morning because of the many reflections aroused in me by one of its characters, the only living one among a crowd of empty shadows.

His role was that of an unfortunate man, a certain Dr. Fileno, who thought he had found the most effective cure for every kind of ailment, an infallible prescription for consoling himself and all men for every public or private calamity.

To tell the truth, rather than a cure or a prescription, this discovery of Dr. Fileno’s was a method, which consisted of reading history books from morning till night and of looking on the present as history, too—that is, as something already very remote in time. And with this method he had been cured of all his ills, he had freed himself from every sorrow and every annoyance, and had found peace without the necessity of dying: an austere, serene peace, permeated with that certain sadness without regret which the cemeteries on the earth’s surface would still retain even after all the people on earth had died out.

Dr. Fileno hadn’t even the slightest thought of deriving lessons from the past for the present, because he knew it would be a waste of time and a game for fools. History is an idealized amalgam of elements gathered together in accordance with the nature, likes, dislikes, aspirations and opinions of historians. How, then, can this idealized amalgam be applied to living, effective reality, in which the elements are still separate and scattered? Nor, similarly, did he have any thought of deriving from the present any norms or predictions for the future. In fact, Dr. Fileno did just the opposite. In his mind he placed himself in the future in order to look back at the present, which he viewed as the past.

For example, a few days earlier a daughter of his had died. A friend had come to see him to condole with him over his misfortune. Well, he had found him as consoled already as if that daughter had died a hundred years before.

He had just taken that misfortune of his, while it was still recent and painful, and had distanced it in time, had relegated it to, and filed it away in, the past.

But you had to see from what a height and with how much dignity he spoke about it!

In short, Dr. Fileno had made a sort of telescope for himself out of that method of his. He would open it, but now not with the intention of looking toward the future, where he knew he would see nothing. He convinced his mind that it should be contented to look through the larger lens, which was pointed at the future, toward the smaller one, which was pointed at the present. And so his mind looked through the “wrong” end of the telescope, and immediately the present became small and very distant.


Quest’ultima domenica sono entrato nello scrittojo, per l’udienza, un po’ più tardi del solito.

Un lungo romanzo inviatomi in dono, e che aspettava da più d’un mese d’esser letto, mi tenne sveglio fino alle tre del mattino per le tante considerazioni che mi suggerì un personaggio di esso, l’unico vivo tra molte ombre vane.

Rappresentava un pover uomo, un certo dottor Fileno, che credeva d’aver trovato il più efficace rimedio a ogni sorta di mali, una ricetta infallibile per consolar se stesso e tutti gli uomini d’ogni pubblica o privata calamità.

Veramente, più che rimedio o ricetta, era un metodo, questo del dottor Fileno, che consisteva nel leggere da mane a sera libri di storia e nel veder nella storia anche il presente, cioè come già lontanissimo nel tempo e impostato negli archivii del passato.

Con questo metodo s’era liberato d’ogni pena e d’ogni fastidio, e aveva trovato – senza bisogno di morire – la pace: una pace austera e serena, soffusa di quella certa mestizia senza rimpianto, che serberebbero ancora i cimiteri su la faccia della terra, anche quando tutti gli uomini vi fossero morti.

Non si sognava neppure, il dottor Fileno, di trarre dal passato ammaestramenti per il presente. Sapeva che sarebbe stato tempo perduto, e da sciocchi; perché la storia è composizione ideale d’elementi raccolti secondo la natura, le antipatie, le simpatie, le aspirazioni, le opinioni degli storici, e che non è dunque possibile far servire questa composizione ideale alla vita che si muove con tutti i suoi elementi ancora scomposti e sparpagliati. E nemmeno si sognava di trarre dal presente norme o previsioni per l’avvenire; anzi faceva proprio il contrario: si poneva idealmente nell’avvenire per guardare il presente, e lo vedeva come passato.

Gli era morta, per esempio, da pochi giorni una figliuola. Un amico era andato a trovarlo per condolersi con lui della sciagura. Ebbene, lo aveva trovato già così consolato, come se quella figliuola gli fosse morta da più che cent’anni.

La sua sciagura, ancor calda calda, l’aveva senz’altro allontanata nel tempo, respinta e composta nel passato. Ma bisognava vedere da quale altezza e con quanta dignità ne parlava!

In somma, di quel suo metodo il dottor Fileno s’era fatto come un cannocchiale rivoltato. Lo apriva, ma non per mettersi a guardare verso l’avvenire, dove sapeva che non avrebbe veduto niente; persuadeva l’anima a esser contenta di mettersi a guardare dalla lente più grande, attraverso la piccola, appuntata al presente, per modo che tutte le cose subito le apparissero piccole e lontane.

Possibly a background connection – there’s a line in a Giovvani Verga story I happened to be reading today (Fantasticheria in Vita dei campi and translated as Picturesque Lives in the Penguin Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories collection) that describes someone as ‘contemplat[ing] life through the other end of a telescope.’

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