A matter of business

From Maupassant’s Le Diable (The Devil – French online here, English here). I sat down to read La Horla for Halloween and rediscovered how rich the rest of the collection is – Clochette especially is surprisingly close in feel to his mentor Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple (A Simple Heart). This one is very different – a small masterpiece of the old peasant farce, something that could equally well be the basis of a Boccaccio tale but never pulled off with the same verve.

A woman employed to watch over the dying has agreed with a farmer to accept a lump sum instead of her normal daily wage, each party thereby hoping to steal a bargain on the other. Finding that the farmer’s mother isn’t dying as quickly as hoped, she improvises.

She came at daybreak, and found Honore eating his soup, which he had made himself before going to work, and the sick-nurse asked him: “Well, is your mother dead?” “She is rather better, on the contrary,” he replied, with a sly look out of the corner of his eyes. And he went out.

La Rapet, seized with anxiety, went up to the dying woman, who remained in the same state, lethargic and impassive, with her eyes open and her hands clutching the counterpane. The nurse perceived that this might go on thus for two days, four days, eight days, and her avaricious mind was seized with fear, while she was furious at the sly fellow who had tricked her, and at the woman who would not die.

Nevertheless, she began to work, and waited, looking intently at the wrinkled face of Mother Bontemps. When Honore returned to breakfast he seemed quite satisfied and even in a bantering humor. He was decidedly getting in his wheat under very favorable circumstances.

La Rapet was becoming exasperated; every minute now seemed to her so much time and money stolen from her. She felt a mad inclination to take this old woman, this, headstrong old fool, this obstinate old wretch, and to stop that short, rapid breath, which was robbing her of her time and money, by squeezing her throat a little. But then she reflected on the danger of doing so, and other thoughts came into her head; so she went up to the bed and said: “Have you ever seen the Devil?” Mother Bontemps murmured: “No.”

Then the sick-nurse began to talk and to tell her tales which were likely to terrify the weak mind of the dying woman. Some minutes before one dies the Devil appears, she said, to all who are in the death throes. He has a broom in his hand, a saucepan on his head, and he utters loud cries. When anybody sees him, all is over, and that person has only a few moments longer to live. She then enumerated all those to whom the Devil had appeared that year: Josephine Loisel, Eulalie Ratier, Sophie Padaknau, Seraphine Grospied.

Mother Bontemps, who had at last become disturbed in mind, moved about, wrung her hands, and tried to turn her head to look toward the end of the room. Suddenly La Rapet disappeared at the foot of the bed. She took a sheet out of the cupboard and wrapped herself up in it; she put the iron saucepan on her head, so that its three short bent feet rose up like horns, and she took a broom in her right hand and a tin pail in her left, which she threw up suddenly, so that it might fall to the ground noisily.

When it came down, it certainly made a terrible noise. Then, climbing upon a chair, the nurse lifted up the curtain which hung at the bottom of the bed, and showed herself, gesticulating and uttering shrill cries into the iron saucepan which covered her face, while she menaced the old peasant woman, who was nearly dead, with her broom.

Terrified, with an insane expression on her face, the dying woman made a superhuman effort to get up and escape; she even got her shoulders and chest out of bed; then she fell back with a deep sigh. All was over, and La Rapet calmly put everything back into its place; the broom into the corner by the cupboard the sheet inside it, the saucepan on the hearth, the pail on the floor, and the chair against the wall. Then, with professional movements, she closed the dead woman’s large eyes, put a plate on the bed and poured some holy water into it, placing in it the twig of boxwood that had been nailed to the chest of drawers, and kneeling down, she fervently repeated the prayers for the dead, which she knew by heart, as a matter of business.


Elle arriva, en effet, au jour levant.

Honoré, avant de se rendre aux terres, mangeait sa soupe, qu’il avait faite lui-même.

La garde demanda :

— Eh ben, vot’mé a-t-all’ passé ?

Il répondit, avec un pli malin au coin des yeux :

— All’va plutôt mieux.

Et il s’en alla.

La Rapet, saisie d’inquiétude, s’approcha de l’agonisante, qui demeurait dans le même état, oppressée et impassible, l’œil ouvert et les mains crispées sur sa couverture.

Et la garde comprit que cela pouvait durer deux jours, quatre jours, huit jours ainsi ; et une épouvante étreignit son cœur d’avare, tandis qu’une colère furieuse la soulevait contre ce finaud qui l’avait jouée et contre cette femme qui ne mourait pas.

Elle se mit au travail néanmoins et attendit, le regard fixé sur la face ridée de la mère Bontemps.

Honoré revint pour déjeuner ; il semblait content, presque goguenard ; puis il repartit. Il rentrait son blé, décidément, dans des conditions excellentes.

La Rapet s’exaspérait ; chaque minute écoulée lui semblait, maintenant, du temps volé, de l’argent volé. Elle avait envie, une envie folle de prendre par le cou cette vieille bourrique, cette vieille têtue, cette vieille obstinée, et d’arrêter, en serrant un peu, ce petit souffle rapide qui lui volait son temps et son argent.

Puis elle réfléchit au danger ; et, d’autres idées lui passant par la tête, elle se rapprocha du lit.

Elle demanda :

— Vos avez-t-il déjà vu l’Diable ?

La mère Bontemps murmura :

— Non.

Alors la garde se mit à causer, à lui conter des histoires pour terroriser son âme débile de mourante.

Quelques minutes avant qu’on expirât, le Diable apparaissait, disait-elle, à tous les agonisants. Il avait un balai à la main, une marmite sur la tête, et il poussait de grands cris. Quand on l’avait vu, c’était fini, on n’en avait plus que pour peu d’instants. Et elle énumérait tous ceux à qui le Diable était apparu devant elle, cette année-là : Joséphin Loisel, Eulalie Ratier, Sophie Padagnau, Séraphine Grospied.

La mère Bontemps, émue enfin, s’agitait, remuait les mains, essayait de tourner la tête pour regarder au fond de la chambre.

Soudain la Rapet disparut au pied du lit. Dans l’armoire, elle prit un drap et s’enveloppa dedans ; elle se coiffa de la marmite, dont les trois pieds courts et courbés se dressaient ainsi que trois cornes ; elle saisit un balai de sa main droite, et, de la main gauche, un seau de fer-blanc, qu’elle jeta brusquement en l’air pour qu’il retombât avec bruit.

Il fit, en heurtant le sol, un fracas épouvantable ; alors, grimpée sur une chaise, la garde souleva le rideau qui pendait au bout du lit, et elle apparut, gesticulant, poussant des clameurs aiguës au fond du pot de fer qui lui cachait la face, et menaçant de son balai, comme un diable de guignol, la vieille paysanne à bout de vie.

Éperdue, le regard fou, la mourante fit un effort surhumain pour se soulever et s’enfuir ; elle sortit même de sa couche ses épaules et sa poitrine ; puis elle retomba avec un grand soupir. C’était fini.

Et la Rapet, tranquillement, remit en place tous les objets, le balai au coin de l’armoire, le drap dedans, la marmite sur le foyer, le seau sur la planche et la chaise contre le mur. Puis, avec les gestes professionnels, elle ferma les yeux énormes de la morte, posa sur le lit une assiette, versa dedans l’eau du bénitier, y trempa le buis cloué sur la commode et, s’agenouillant, se mit à réciter avec ferveur les prières des trépassés qu’elle savait par cœur, par métier.

The Power of Words

The Power of Words, a greatly underappreciated tale of Edgar Allan Poe’s that spreads more to speculative philosophy and proto-speculative fiction than what you’d expect from the author (and maybe even hits post-apocalyptic given the glancing mention of ‘shortly before the final overthrow of the earth’). The surface background would seem John 1:1 (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God) but there are more interesting curiosities throughout like a proposed paradox of omniscience, a theory on the infinite traceability of cause, and recurring hints of gnosticism.

OINOS. Pardon, Agathos, the weakness of a spirit new-fledged with immortality!

AGATHOS. You have spoken nothing, my Oinos, for which pardon is to be demanded. Not even here is knowledge thing of intuition. For wisdom, ask of the angels freely, that it may be given!

OINOS. But in this existence, I dreamed that I should be at once cognizant of all things, and thus at once be happy in being cognizant of all.

AGATHOS. Ah, not in knowledge is happiness, but in the acquisition of knowledge! In for ever knowing, we are for ever blessed; but to know all were the curse of a fiend.

OINOS. But does not The Most High know all?

AGATHOS. That (since he is The Most Happy) must be still the one thing unknown even to Him.

OINOS. But, since we grow hourly in knowledge, must not at last all things be known?

AGATHOS. Look down into the abysmal distances!—attempt to force the gaze down the multitudinous vistas of the stars, as we sweep slowly through them thus—and thus—and thus! Even the spiritual vision, is it not at all points arrested by the continuous golden walls of the universe?—the walls of the myriads of the shining bodies that mere number has appeared to blend into unity?

OINOS. I clearly perceive that the infinity of matter is no dream.

AGATHOS. There are no dreams in Aidenn—but it is here whispered that, of this infinity of matter, the sole purpose is to afford infinite springs, at which the soul may allay the thirst to know, which is for ever unquenchable within it—since to quench it, would be to extinguish the soul’s self. Question me then, my Oinos, freely and without fear. Come! we will leave to the left the loud harmony of the Pleiades, and swoop outward from the throne into the starry meadows beyond Orion, where, for pansies and violets, and heart’s—ease, are the beds of the triplicate and triple—tinted suns.

OINOS. And now, Agathos, as we proceed, instruct me!—speak to me in the earth’s familiar tones. I understand not what you hinted to me, just now, of the modes or of the method of what, during mortality, we were accustomed to call Creation. Do you mean to say that the Creator is not God?

AGATHOS. I mean to say that the Deity does not create.

OINOS. Explain.

AGATHOS. In the beginning only, he created. The seeming creatures which are now, throughout the universe, so perpetually springing into being, can only be considered as the mediate or indirect, not as the direct or immediate results of the Divine creative power.

OINOS. Among men, my Agathos, this idea would be considered heretical in the extreme.

AGATHOS. Among angels, my Oinos, it is seen to be simply true.

OINOS. I can comprehend you thus far—that certain operations of what we term Nature, or the natural laws, will, under certain conditions, give rise to that which has all the appearance of creation. Shortly before the final overthrow of the earth, there were, I well remember, many very successful experiments in what some philosophers were weak enough to denominate the creation of animalculae.

AGATHOS. The cases of which you speak were, in fact, instances of the secondary creation—and of the only species of creation which has ever been, since the first word spoke into existence the first law.

OINOS. Are not the starry worlds that, from the abyss of nonentity, burst hourly forth into the heavens—are not these stars, Agathos, the immediate handiwork of the King?

AGATHOS. Let me endeavor, my Oinos, to lead you, step by step, to the conception I intend. You are well aware that, as no thought can perish, so no act is without infinite result. We moved our hands, for example, when we were dwellers on the earth, and, in so doing, gave vibration to the atmosphere which engirdled it. This vibration was indefinitely extended, till it gave impulse to every particle of the earth’s air, which thenceforward, and for ever, was actuated by the one movement of the hand. This fact the mathematicians of our globe well knew. They made the special effects, indeed, wrought in the fluid by special impulses, the subject of exact calculation—so that it became easy to determine in what precise period an impulse of given extent would engirdle the orb, and impress (for ever) every atom of the atmosphere circumambient. Retrograding, they found no difficulty, from a given effect, under given conditions, in determining the value of the original impulse. Now the mathematicians who saw that the results of any given impulse were absolutely endless—and who saw that a portion of these results were accurately traceable through the agency of algebraic analysis—who saw, too, the facility of the retrogradation—these men saw, at the same time, that this species of analysis itself, had within itself a capacity for indefinite progress—that there were no bounds conceivable to its advancement and applicability, except within the intellect of him who advanced or applied it. But at this point our mathematicians paused.

OINOS. And why, Agathos, should they have proceeded?

AGATHOS. Because there were some considerations of deep interest beyond. It was deducible from what they knew, that to a being of infinite understanding—one to whom the perfection of the algebraic analysis lay unfolded—there could be no difficulty in tracing every impulse given the air—and the ether through the air—to the remotest consequences at any even infinitely remote epoch of time. It is indeed demonstrable that every such impulse given the air, must, in the end, impress every individual thing that exists within the universe;—and the being of infinite understanding—the being whom we have imagined—might trace the remote undulations of the impulse—trace them upward and onward in their influences upon all particles of an matter—upward and onward for ever in their modifications of old forms—or, in other words, in their creation of new—until he found them reflected—unimpressive at last—back from the throne of the Godhead. And not only could such a thing do this, but at any epoch, should a given result be afforded him—should one of these numberless comets, for example, be presented to his inspection—he could have no difficulty in determining, by the analytic retrogradation, to what original impulse it was due. This power of retrogradation in its absolute fulness and perfection—this faculty of referring at all epochs, all effects to all causes—is of course the prerogative of the Deity alone—but in every variety of degree, short of the absolute perfection, is the power itself exercised by the whole host of the Angelic intelligences.

OINOS. But you speak merely of impulses upon the air.

AGATHOS. In speaking of the air, I referred only to the earth; but the general proposition has reference to impulses upon the ether—which, since it pervades, and alone pervades all space, is thus the great medium of creation.

OINOS. Then all motion, of whatever nature, creates?

AGATHOS. It must: but a true philosophy has long taught that the source of all motion is thought—and the source of all thought is—

OINOS. God.

AGATHOS. I have spoken to you, Oinos, as to a child of the fair Earth which lately perished—of impulses upon the atmosphere of the Earth.

OINOS. You did.

AGATHOS. And while I thus spoke, did there not cross your mind some thought of the physical power of words? Is not every word an impulse on the air?

OINOS. But why, Agathos, do you weep—and why, oh why do your wings droop as we hover above this fair star—which is the greenest and yet most terrible of all we have encountered in our flight? Its brilliant flowers look like a fairy dream—but its fierce volcanoes like the passions of a turbulent heart.

AGATHOS. They are!—they are! This wild star—it is now three centuries since, with clasped hands, and with streaming eyes, at the feet of my beloved—I spoke it—with a few passionate sentences—into birth. Its brilliant flowers are the dearest of all unfulfilled dreams, and its raging volcanoes are the passions of the most turbulent and unhallowed of hearts.

Marginalia on Casanova

From Miklos Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova, the first of ten volumes in his St. Orpheus Breviary . v. 2 is also available in English as Black Renaissance. The French have made it further and released up through v.4 (v.3 as Escorial and v.4 as Europa Minor). Since Szentkuthy likely needs a lead-in for English readers, here first is the somewhat puffed up introductory overview:

Basically, this opus can be read as a long mythos of the marginal. From his room-library with some twenty-five thousand volumes, Szentkuthy annotates and revisits history. Mixing with ease and joy hagiography, literary study, fiction, narrative, the lyric poem and the aphorism, this roman-cathedrale, whose denomination “breviary” must not mislead, with the humor of his antiphrasis, offers an unprecedented recrossing as unheard-of as much as it is ironical of all literary and artistic forms cultivated by the West, from early times to the twentieth century, with major milestones: Rome, Byzantium, Venice, the Italian Renaissance & the Spanish Baroque. As archivist buffoon, Szentkuthy feeds the extravagant theater with his rigorous bulimia of a thousand networks of burgeoning stories, palimpsests in abysses and apocryphal pitfalls. Appropriating countless masks, pacing the epochs, this emotional athlete has no other aim than to break time until it stills the whirlwind of history into one continuous present.

Lord of illusions or exhibitor of shadows, there is something of the devourer in this man, who cannot bear to live cramped in one body, one life, one language. He prefers to cultivate double replicas of being, invest all fates — saints, libertines, popes, musicians, emperors, writers, eunuchs, painters or biblical girls. “I always wanted to see everything,” he confessed, “read everything, think everything, dream everything, swallow everything.”

From whence the art and manner of travelling across languages and playing the Argonauts of Planetary Writing (is it a coincidence that Szentkuthy was the translator of both Ulysses and Gulliver?). In truth, this stubborn survivor of the Enlightenment seems motivated entirely by a furious encyclopedic desire. A simple glance at the table of contents of the Breviary suffices to show the profligacy of this inner odyssey, where a few characters who were never in search of an author marched pell-mell: Casanova, Mozart, Adonis, Toscanini, Turner, Rubens, Brunelleschi, Keats, Herodotus, El Greco, Pythagoras, Voltaire, Puccini, Ariosto, Tintoretto, Shelley, Abelard, Monteverdi, Tacitus, Messalina, Theodora, Akbar, Lao Tzu, Palladio, Mary Tudor, Donatello, Philip II, Buddha, etc.

As many roles as Szentkuthy assumes in the manner of a comedian or an absolute dreamer, writing thus a sumptuous catalogus amoris. Here truly resides the infinite song of an Orpheus with Apollonian harmonies, god of metamorphosis, “being whose role it is to celebrate,” in the words of Rilke.

In an age where anyone — even under the sign of the worst conformism — prides oneself on marginality, Szentkuthy appears, all in all, as the writer of the absolute margin. Throughout his life, he continued to write in the margins of his books, covering and recovering — maniacally, scrupulously — volumes, newspapers, journals, and other documents. An infinite mosaic of notes, footnotes, keywords and various doodles, continuous shuffling between reading and writing — one without the other is here inconceivable — interminable bubbling of the library-universe in the heart of the Opus Magnum. Borges reminds us: “Another superstition of those ages has come to us: that of the Man of the Book. On some shelf of some hexagon, we reasoned, there must exist a book which is the key and summary of all the others; there is a librarian who has read this book and who is like a god.”{2} If there is a writer who is a Man of the Book, according to the wish of the Argentinean master, it is Szentkuthy, in relentless pursuit of a magnum opus that would contain and even restore all creation.

Such was his passion, and his method as well. A process inaugurated in the first book of the Breviary, precisely titled Marginalia on Casanova. Strangely — but can we talk of strangeness when discussing a man who claimed to “work in co-production with chance”? — the structure of this founding volume owes much to theology. In 1938, Szentkuthy read the Römerbrief of the famous Protestant exegete Karl Barth, a commentary that is based on an analysis, phrase by phrase, even word by word, of the Epistle to the Romans. Literally enchanted by the effectiveness of this method — “where, in his words, every epithet puts imagination in motion” — he decided to apply it on the spot to Casanova, whose memoirs (a German edition in six large volumes) he had just annotated with gusto.

Simultaneity of all epochs, anachronistic audacity, chaos erected into a system (“the order of the random,” as defined by the same author) — was what this flamboyant opus quietly gave to read. The reception? Actually, there was none, since as soon as it was published — and even though Szentkuthy dutifully went to the church to “give thanks to all competent authorities of Catholic Heaven” to have authorized this iconoclast publication — the Royal Hungarian Court condemned Marginalia on Casanova for blasphemous profanity and assault on decency. Enjoying the protection of a prosecutor of the crown, the accused barely escaped trial — but all copies of the work were immediately confiscated. Thus was inaugurated the series of “Orpheuses”

And here are two relatively early chapters of the first volume (10 and 11). Halfway through the volume and I’m far from knowing what to do with it but these passages – the second especially – feel as good a representation of the author’s style as any.

“Ging ich in Maske aus” [I set out masked]— that is the logical culmination of civilization as an affirmation of self-contradictions. That culture: a mask culture, the reality of the 18th century, the reality of the mask. ‘Psychology’ here is a mistake arising from the mask, games of quid pro quo; sensuality only becomes truly great through the secret of the mask. Behind the mask lurks nihilism — a mask is almost as much a possibility of tragedy as Venice is simply by virtue of being Venice.

Neither Sophocles nor Shakespeare wrote a sentence as tragic as Casanova’s: “Ich ging in Maske aus.” A colored mask? A black one? With a long, corkscrew freak’s nose or just a simple covering for the forehead? Life is only tolerable in a mask — in this daring gesture civilization makes use of all game of games, a paradox from which it follows, but at the same time its nostalgia for non-civilization is quite tremendous.

A masked head is a death mask. In this disguise are preluded the two or three adventurous Venetian midnights which play a part in Casanova: when he has his revenge on an adversary; when a senator faints in a gondola; when marble tables are thrown together on resounding stone and he drunkenly tolls the bells with his musician companions.


As a small baby abate Casanova delivers a sermon in church. What is important above all else is that there is a world in which such a thing is possible, historically speaking. A world in which no one gives a damn about whether a person wearing a priest’s garb is a priest; a world in which a young boy can make a debut like a little ballerina. If that is the milieu then a thousand other things are self-evident. Yet Casanova’s entire intellectual mission (because he has none other in life) hangs on this: that a milieu can be one such or another, but there are only situations, the dramatis personae are not so much negligible as nothings.

Love is not a human death game or erotic game of patience, it is not a soul, not a body, not a marriage, not an adventure — love is: a ‘situation’; a constellation of objects, people, and times, one in which every object or time or even human component counts equally, irrespective of any ranking. Every Catholic child has been through that sweetly confusing age of twinges of conscience when budding sexual fantasies and equally budding religious notions chase each other around: we said our prayers with Greuze tears in our eyes and felt that God would excuse us for the female portrait, the one carried around in one’s pocketbook. Anyone who did not experience those partly uneasy, partly idyllic self-apologies knows little about love. Casanova’s sincere sermon and sincere adolescent boy’s eroticism fit alongside one another in his soul — that is what makes him childish. At this point moral insanity and Loyolan furor hover in balance — perhaps the finest sentimental and moral moment. One continually has the feeling that Casanova has a right to preach; something completely logical and completely free of hypocrisy is going on here. God wishes that the sermon should not be delivered by a bearded St. John in the wilderness but by a love-stricken Venetian young rascal in a periwig and without genuine faith: the whole religion is thereby cozier, more human, truer. After making his sermon, Casanova got a bagful of love-letters from female admirers; they straightaway smuggle into the sacristy.

Why should it be impossible and out of the question to label this as: frivolousness? How do we dare to say that the gondolaing settecento was religious, maybe because there is greater morality in this post-carnival ease? That it is all “I’ll go to confession and have done with it!” because everything is in Pauline contrition-versus-ecstasy? Because man is somehow so incestuously warm, somehow in an intimately fait accompli position with God: that God seeks to fall into the gossip net of human life, and this is where it happened. A Calvinist holding God at arm’s length and a baroque-Roman palling-up to God are probably equally bad extremes, but my theological heart mooches around the latter with unquenchable nostalgia.

The scene itself is unforgettable: a church next to the water like a swimming box of relics, the steps meeting the green paludial liquid like coins which have slipped just a nuance further out from an overturned stack of money; prows jammed together, gondolas lurch in one place around the gate like miff-necked black swans around an invisible morsel — the church is small, the whole thing no more than a boudoir, the women, in their balloon silks, thrown on each other — the lagoon’s marsh reek, an oily fish smell billowing out from the eating-houses, many perfumes and stifling hard fumes of incense concentrated into a single Catholic dogma: that’s Casanova’s world. This is the image added to which I always imagine Miracoli. When one first sees it: from behind. Thank goodness, we have such an entirely cost-free key to the reality-nature of reality: one must glimpse such magnificent edifices for the first time from the back, the ‘bad’ perspective. This is Santa Maria dei Miracoli: at one moment a powder-box at the edge of a green washbasin, the next moment (with its Byzantine artichoke cupolas) the new St. Mark’s church, a celestial Constantinople.

In cupolated buildings like this the high, smooth walls almost outgrow the height of the cupolas, with the green Orthodox cones falling between the shoulders. They are always falling; the five or six cupolas hurriedly shrink as if Orthodoxy were doubling the perspective, were hastening them to double. Casanova’s childhood sermon has grown together with this in my memory, and that too is symbolical: just like the miracle boudoir and Constantinople, so even Casanova’s young days of the intensification of sweetest intimacy with the world right up till the fateful journey (“ich muss… ich muss…”) to Byzantium.