Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?

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Knowledge is superior to science. Knowledge assumes its form by way of the various disciplines. Let us once again take up the question of presence and absence. When the geologist’s pick frees the ichthyosaur from the shale, then the beast is present, or at least his mummy or his fossil is present. This presence was always possible, even in the times of Scheuchzer, when such discoveries were interpreted as relics of the Flood.
Then something new arose, which cleared the way for science and even for knowledge: an Eros of vision, capable of abolishing time by penetrating it. It evokes the absent to cause it to become present. This absence had not originated thanks to time, however long it may have lasted. Time is nothing but a form of absence.
The memory of these beings was extinguished for millions of years. Eros has carried out a resurrection; at least as far as its most important part, the Platonic aspect. If, independently of that precedent, a living dinosaur had been discovered, in, for example, a virgin jungle or on Mars, this discovery would only be a simple curiosity compared with the rebirth made possible by the spirit.
A partial resurrection, then, an evocation of its presence in the great arena of representation. And, thus, only an ephemeral copy, an allegory of the mystery. Only an approach.
The pyramids—within whose chambers De Quincey, transformed into a mummy, suffered the torment of time, without any hope of salvation—are also copies, similes. It had to happen there, in the shadow of the kingdom where the problem of resurrection had most obsessively occupied the spirit.
Buried in the deepest depths of dream, the dead wait, for thousands of years, for the absent to return and to restore them to life. This restoration will bring not just a new life, but also a higher form of life, since the living have foreseen it, if only fleetingly and allegorically. Thus, in the lovers’ embrace and prayer.
The problem of the other side has accompanied us since the beginning.72 It is not the monopoly of priests and sacerdotal knowledge; it existed before them and will continue to exist after they are gone. Materialism will resolve it in its own way; against it, its technical devices will subsist, like the ornaments of the royal tombs in the antechambers.
Even today, when the individual meditates in the heart of his pyramid, he does not think of motors, space voyages or atomic bombs. Only one problem absorbs his attention, a problem that millions of years will not be enough to solve, for it hearkens beyond all procreation and all origins.
Doctors, who see so many people die, know little about death.
Celtic blood must have flowed in De Quincey’s veins, and in Droste’s, too. For both, the interval, that is, the lapse of time between the present and the absent, was essentially a time of pain—it is possible that in the work of Annette von Droste there are Christian influences, while in De Quincey one detects classical echoes. In Purgatory, as in Hades, an indeterminate time reigns. For Novalis, the interval is a brief pilgrimage, followed by restoration:
Over I pilgrim

Where every pain

Zest only of pleasure

Shall one day remain.73
If the hunter was buried with his bow and arrows in his burial mound, this is because he was certain that in the beyond he would pass the time in a pleasant way. The Egyptian funerary chambers are ornamented like the palaces of princes, as are the burial ships of the Germans. The banquets and amorous pursuits of the inhabitants of the subterranean world of Tarquinia are of a marvelous good cheer. They are even redolent of a zest for life. The Etruscans, like the Lydians and the Celts, survive in fairy tales. The cremation of the dead was contemplated, and still is, as a temporary transition. “With their fiery arms they will raise into heaven.”74 The road to Purgatory, on the other hand, is tedious and full of torments.
One particular aspect of the problem consists in determining whether the “Great Transition”,75 that is, the abolition of time by way of restitution, can be achieved in any “circumstance”, as a result of each circumstance, or whether, to the contrary, it must fail and thus sink into the fearful stagnation of time. Religions offer diverse answers with regard to the method, but not with regard to the accuracy, of their claims.
That unmediated representations should be formed about transcendence does not please the priestly hierarchies. Such representations can be achieved by way of initiation and meditation. Mystics, ecstatics, visionaries, and freethinkers were always suspect in the eyes of the Church, despite the very great debts the Church owed to them. That which flows through them must be attenuated and filtered through a slow process, it must pass through a mediation. Finally, in certain circumstances, a halo condenses. As for the thinkers, from Heraclitus to Nietzsche, they have almost never been welcomed.
Demeter and Dionysius do not need any kind of mediation; they approach without beating around the bush. One undoubtedly encounters guides for dreamers and for the dead there, but they do not work by way of teaching but, like Aphrodite, by way of physical contact or, like Orpheus, with verses and music. There, the subterranean world shines, with its treasures and its great metamorphoses. Its light also complements that of day, which, transfigured, is transformed into Eleusinian light.
These are metamorphoses that are heralded not only under the structures of technology, but also by penetrating into their interior. Now there is a cement factory in Eleusis. This would have perhaps implied a nuisance for the minor mysteries, which are celebrated in the spring, but not for the great mysteries, which are celebrated in autumn. Cement and marble are surfaces when one recognizes the “maternal bosom of Persephone”. Then there are no more differences.
The word, crocodile, comes from “Krokê-drilos”, the “worm of stone”. He comes up to the opium eater and gives him “cancerous kisses”. Time becomes a nightmare; the sleeper is buried under the weight of the pyramid, and, immobilized by the bandages of the mummy, he is ineluctably exposed to its terrors.
Baudelaire saw this anxiety as a kind of punishment that follows in the wake of prolonged abuse of the drug. It is a just observation; all ecstatic intoxication comes with a price. However, an argument could be made in favor of paying this price if one also takes into account the fact that De Quincey knew how to condense into a few pages an awe-inspiring aspect of time, in whose vortices we go astray like shipwrecked sailors in the nocturnal sea. We need to expand our horizons in order to once again discover this order of greatness, perhaps by hearkening back to the Epistles to the Corinthians or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.
In its balance sheets, time not only demands the repayment of a “debt”, but also concedes an “asset”; and time is more valuable than any other possession.
When I returned from the bathroom and woke up out of my dreamlike state, I was pleased to meet myself again after a long absence. I had one other reason for happiness, however. Looking at the clock, I realized with astonishment that only a few minutes had passed. Therefore, I still had an immense reserve of time and I could prolong, without limits, this delicious night. I let a few drops of laudanum fall into the glass.
The night was a blanket that offered heat and security; I wrapped it more tightly around my body. Time became space, dense like a narrow chamber which is no longer in the heart of the pyramid, but far below it. There, so far below, nothing happened, only a sepulchral silence reigned, an impregnable solitude. On the surface, they could be competing in battles or races, they could be feasting or killing each other—I had so little to do with all of that, it was as distant from me as those who fell in the war. There, up above, need and hunger prevailed, fires and executions reigned, the tribunals pronounced their sentences. There, time wove its absurd fabric of ropes and barbed wire. Here, down below, it became as fine as silk, colorless and without designs and, at last, the thread ran imperceptibly through my hand. I did not feel any knots or abrasions. Not even any fatherlands.
It was the nearness of the grid; the habit of unwinding fabric was counted among the Hippocratic symptoms of imminent death. I would like to conclude this chapter by mentioning a new phenomenon.
Awakening—I am referring to the everyday kind of awakening—is accompanied on every occasion by an effort of orientation. This happens especially in abrupt awakenings; the compass is thrown completely off course. When we are awakened by a sudden shock at night, it takes quite a bit of effort to orient ourselves on the symmetrical axis; we all know this extraordinary effort. Often, it takes a long time before we get our bearings and realize that our body is in our bedroom.
The ancients loved to compare sleep and death, and even believed that we live like gods in our dreams; on this point, there are many different opinions. In any event, we have the feeling that the day steals something from us; it forces us to return to time.
“Once, I lived like the gods”: some dreamers never come back or, like Scardanelli,76 remain lost for many years in an intermediate realm. Many people wake up happy, many also wake up sad, but we always miss, whether or not we are aware of this, the power that dreaming restores to us.
“It has nothing to do with history”: this is more than just a pleasant feeling. It is something more than a temporary exemption; it is the exemption from time, it is the absolution that the individual grants himself. This comforts him even on the way to the gallows. The condemned man attends the event as if it were “a hanging in another world” (Des Réaux). And a world that is not his world.
This feeling is one of the gifts that are bestowed by ecstatic intoxication. It is a preparatory exercise. The poppy, from time immemorial synonymous with dreams and forgetting, also has the property of dilating time, almost to the infinite—not the time of the clocks, with their cosmic and omnipotent constraint, but the time that is, unreservedly, the dwelling and the property of man, and at the same time present and absent. This is the greatest luxury: to dispose of one’s own time. For this reason, it is always interpreted as disorder. Luxus, luxuria. This is especially true today, when we live under the rule of clocks. Anyone who disposes of his own time is suspect. Consequently, the forest subsists, even when it has been clear-cut. There, there is another time, the kind experienced in the forest by the monk from Heisterbach.77
“But what the deuce had he to do in that Galley?”, as Molière’s Géronte said. To synchronize the rhythms, which are coordinated everywhere, even in the most distant domains, on the basis of normal time, is the fundamental job of the clerks. On the need for all of this we have spoken at length in other passages, concerning whitening. A feeling of hangover after excess is inevitable in an era when the synchronization with normal time has seized upon domains destined, by their very nature, to be distanced from it, like music. Here, the absent is immediately incorporated into consciousness.
Supplementary Notes on Opium
Concerning the grid. Today is November 1, 1969; I have just returned from Agadir, after a brief interruption of my work on the manuscript. There, among the golden dunes, the dune d’or, the sand is of the finest texture that I have ever seen on any beach. Each wave that breaks on the shore, after a long unfolding, leaves its traces on the area it covered: delicate braids, lines of rings like the annual rings of trees, displays of the lines of life, prophetic signs in the form of a spindle, and the tails of comets that adhere to the pebbles and to the shells tossed up by the sea. The sand provides the grid, which the sea employs with art. Its extraordinary fineness has the effect that the undivided power of the material is filtered through the most delicate of screens. Sand and wave, earth and water, Neptune and Gaia, time and space are united under the light of the African sun, until they form a chain of cosmic auguries. This spectacle is also seen from afar. Every wave erases the old sketches and traces new ones with the trail of its foam.
It is not that objects are lacking here. For two weeks, I was busy with relatively small objects, but I also saw larger wrecks abandoned by the tide—a gigantic ray, for example, the skeleton of a dolphin, a palm tree, and a ship that had run aground.
A central question of art criticism, probably the most important one of all, is the following: how is it possible for the artist to approach the grid? I have before me the beautiful image of a ray created by Bernard Buffet (born in 1928); the fish lies upon a base of bricks: there, the grid seems crude.
It is the merit of Gaston Bachelard, in his brief but profound reflections in La flame d’une chandelle [The Flame of a Candle] (1964), to have brought to light an observation of George Sand, which is pertinent to our theme. Sand asks, in her Consuelo, how Rembrandt, by way of nebulous gradations of a light brown color and another darker brown, could produce in one of his paintings such spatial effects that the meanings of the objects represented are altered by this vague illumination; with this effect, it was if these objects were submerged in the indivisible, and then emerged from the depths invested with a new light.
This passage is instructive both with respect to the importance as well as to the insignificance of objects. Naturally, what is important is not the why, but the how of art; the motive is in itself irrelevant. If a style crystallizes and augments the importance of the technical conditions, one will observe a turn towards the indivisible, which cannot lead beyond the grid. They are not so much advances towards, as retreats from, the phenomenal world; they culminate in tragic conflicts, when they coincide with phases in which mastery has been achieved. Frozen at the end of autumn, jellyfish that rise up from the deeps of the sea in the shadow of the mountains.
The influence of the grid is more an object of sensation than of demonstration: it demands in the material world a subtlety of perception, analogous to that which is demanded in the spiritual world for the knowledge of metaphysical elements. Invisible structures can become visible in another key by transposition, like the microscopic structure of the atoms in a rock crystal the size of a man. They can also be manifested in the diffuse, as George Sand experienced thanks to the art of Rembrandt. In the final analysis, the galaxies are also formed of stars—this is something that can be sensed, even without the high resolution of our electronic telescopes.
There is much that can be expected, in this respect, from the progress of photography, when it has been freed from the obsolete antithesis of art and technology. Here, too, synthesis can create something new: magic.78
A second note: concerning time’s influence on sound. Among the works that I read during those weeks at Agadir was D’Herisson’s Journal d’un interprète en Chine (1886). A hundred years ago, the author, who was at the time a young soldier, accompanied General Montauban during the operations that followed the Taiping Rebellion. He is a good observer and his book is worth reading, if only because it recorded some details concerning one of the greatest looting operations in the history of the world: the sacking of the Summer Palace in Peking, an imperial residence full of priceless treasures. Its looting was like a festival that lasted for weeks, and concluded with the burning of the palace.
In actions of this kind, we behold the repetition of the eruption of an elemental power into a higher civilization; higher, at least, by virtue of its lifestyle and its refinement. Palaces in flames are part of the scenery, like the Palace of Darius in Persepolis or that of Montezuma in Mexico.
With respect to the relation between sound and time I am reminded of the description of a watermelon, which D’Herisson praised as incomparably superior to the Italian variety and even the Spanish. He had heard the Chinese say that watermelons attained their peak of ripeness when they were harvested at night, before the dew covered them. The harvest had to be conducted under a rule of strict silence; since this, the most delicate fruits, would burst if it was exposed to the slightest sound. Among the tricks perpetrated by a bad neighbor, one consisted of banging on a gong at night, during harvest time, in an adjoining garden, causing major damage.
It will be understood that these refinements of horticulture and of the pleasures that accompany it have now become impossible. A jet fighter would annihilate the harvest of an entire province. We are threatened by similar experiences in viticulture. Just as in fortunate eras, everything is music and melody, so, too, is everything a reason for joy: the loving care which the grape grower bestows upon his vines, no less than the voluptuous pleasure of a discerning wine-taster when he hears of a good harvest. Masters and servants are united in a duet.
D’Herisson also tells us that they inserted a tap into those exquisite fruits and filled them with Madeira or even with kirsch; a practice that is still enjoyed. Generally speaking, those campaigns in China undertaken by the European states, which took place throughout the entire 19th century, were notable for their combination of arrogance, brutality and stupidity. Eruptions of barbarians into an empire that could boast of being the oldest and highest civilization that had ever existed on the planet.
Carp “à la polonaise”
My nauseating experience with chloroform was obviously not enough to cure me of my yearning to explore such no-man’s-lands; the “main course” had yet to be served.
After the war, when her children had grown up and things had almost returned to normal, my mother could take trips more often; it was her great pleasure. When the leaves turned red in the forests of Bohemia, she went to Karlsbad for three weeks, and at the beginning of summer she went to Weimar for a brief vacation; both places were easy to travel to; one benefited her physical health, and the other her spiritual health.
In Weimar she stayed at The Elephant and made arrangements for a cab to take her to the Belvedere, the Tiefurt House and Ettersburg Castle. She knew Faust by heart and could carry on an entire conversation by stringing together quotations—which was not rare at the time. The use of quotations was one of the weaknesses of the 19th century; Georg Büchmann (died in 1884) published three editions of his Famous Sayings. This genre has since gone out of fashion, as had already occurred with the type of reader who was well-versed in the Bible. Both cases presuppose a homogeneous stratum of educated people.
Only once did I join my mother in trips to those two cities, although I liked to travel with her—especially beyond the Alps, but also beyond the Main. My mother recovered her cheerfulness there; her nature revived. She felt better especially on the soil of ancient Rome. She would not have been out of place in a Feuerbach painting. In our Northern lands, this light, almost ethereal, effervescence, unclouded by any sediment, is rare. She faced not a few tribulations; five children are always a cause for worry. Her greatest fear, as she confessed to me later, was that one of her children “would get mixed up in some monkey business that could not be remedied”. In such a case she could be relied on, and more than ever.
To be seated in company with my mother, with an uncorked bottle of wine, was a great pleasure on either side of the Alps; this memory still comforts me. In Munich, her hometown, we drank beer with particular joy at the Schneider Bräuhaus, in Tal. In Innsbruck we frequented the Golden Roof; in Garmisch the Post Office Café. Then she ordered wine from the north or the south of the Tyrol, and chestnuts. I cannot recall the topics of our conversations, but I can clearly recall the atmosphere that accompanied them—this is a good sign; the words dissolve from our memories before the melodies. When we want to approach our mothers, this is the right way to do so.
We went on those trips in the anno sancto of 1925, when my mother accompanied me to Naples. Since then, whenever I think of the Roman churches, Santa Maria Maggiore is especially dear to me; we were there together when the Cardinal led a procession. The rays of the sun fell obliquely through the stained glass windows on the mosaics; priests were sitting in the confessionals, and now and then one of them would tap one of the faithful with a kind of fishing pole—it was a very ancient image. By the way, I only heard my mother utter the word “Mary” once, in a prayer that sounded strange to me, when Felix, my younger brother, died. Perhaps it was a memory of her early childhood, for ever since she was a girl she had rebelled against the customs of my grandparents, who went from one church to another every Sunday. In those days, she was reading Ibsen, and once, while she was in the company of her brother, had spoken with him when he was sitting in the sun at the Luitpold café. The rebellious women of that generation were close to her heart; in her last years, her favorite books were the Memoirs of a Socialist, by Lily Braun, and the diaries of the Countess von Reventlow. When she was told that one of the first suffragettes, I think it was a Mrs. Pankhurst, had destroyed a masterpiece at the British Museum, she thought it was good news. There is a photograph that shows this lady being arrested by a policeman; she was wearing a skirt that covered her legs all the way to her ankles.
My grandmother from Munich visited us every now and then, almost always when my mother was about to give birth. She prayed almost without interruption; in any case, I remember her as a gray little old lady, who was always muttering to herself. The fact that my mother should have married a heretic was for her, naturally, a misfortune, and even perhaps a catastrophe. She allowed me to go to the market with her, where, after having spent a long time examining all the wares on sale, she still regretted spending a penny, even if the merchant sold his goods at the cheapest price. Also, she introduced meals that were previously unknown to us, such as, for example, a second breakfast at eleven. This tendency to a modest comfort was a peculiarity of even the most petty bourgeois residents of Munich; they resided in a city that was both prosperous and cheap, and which did not lack for contrasts. There, the “children of this world and the pious souls, too,” felt at home.
The journey to which I am referring was a short one; it took us from Saxony to Hannover, where we both had business to attend to—I, supposedly, after the conclusion of my leave from the army, and my mother, with regard to moving from our previous home. That would place it, then, at the beginning of the twenties. Those were times of political unrest; our journey was interrupted by a railroad workers strike.
My father accompanied us to the train station; as was almost always the case in the morning, he was in a very good mood; he was a real morning person. Early in the morning you would hear him on the stairs, not in the role of Sarastro, but in that of Papageno, which corresponded with his voice and his state of mind. He sang or whistled coming down the stairs; going up the stairs, he would take two or three steps at a time. By then he had overcome his financial problems. The inflation crisis had passed over him like a wave that submerges us before it reaches its crest and subsides.
In Leipzig, we had a stopover for a few hours, long enough to have a leisurely lunch and then take a walk around the city. Although the rising cost of living had only just begun to take effect, rationing had already been relaxed; I infer this from the fact that, in the restaurant of the gigantic train station, there was an à la carte menu. In more intimate surroundings, the bill of fare would have been almost luxurious. The restaurant was situated on a raised level, as in most of the large train stations, which had evidently been constructed according to a common model. So we went up the stairs and we were seated at a small table; a maître d’ presented us with the menu.
“Look”, I said, after reading the menu carefully, “here is a dish that I have been curious about for a long time.”
“Probably, as always, it’s some culinary extravagance. What is it called?”
“Carp à la polonaise.”
“I hope all your desires will be so easy to satisfy. Alright, order it, or else you will be dreaming of carp tonight.”
I did, only to realize once again that in whims like this the imagination plays the leading role. Not in vain do restaurants constantly feature new names and descriptions for dishes that are always the same. I should have known better, since I have always preferred freshwater fish, including the famous trout, on the hook rather than on the table—excepting those kinds that swim up the rivers from the sea, like the salmon and the eel. Fish that lie slumbering in stagnant or still waters do not develop any muscle.
It is rare to find carp à la polonaise in domestic kitchens; the preparation is complicated and is only worth the trouble if you are cooking for a large group. Various strange spices, light and dark beer, onions and mushrooms, caramelized sugar and syrup, pepper bread crumbs, and even more ingredients are indispensable, not to forget the blood of the fish, obtained by making an incision that must not damage the bile gland. Served on a platter of toasted white bread it would be an imperial dish for an Oriental table, a delicacy at a Jewish wedding—it must not be confused, by the way, with the carpe à la juive of Lorraine that is served in gelatin as an appetizer. That is more or less how I remember it; on this occasion, however, it was served in small pieces, and disappointment was inevitable. Many dishes make our mouths water when we read about them in cookbooks or in the memoirs of Casanova or when we are thinking about them in a tavern. The mind must contribute nine-tenths of the pleasure, and it is an old problem, that one cannot save the remaining tenth for later, for supernatural nuptial feasts. We thus return to our theme: in the desert, Saint Anthony transformed his hunger into an overflowing abundance.
After picking through the soft flesh of the fish and the pepper bread soaked in dark beer, I seemed content when we left the restaurant. Although I said that the dish was delicious, my mother saw through my irony.
In Brühl they had leather hides on display again. It was not that they needed money, but only that now it was distributed differently. Once, on the occasion of an imperial visit, the facades of the houses on both sides of the street had been completely covered with hides, as if they were the flanks of a gigantic animal; my mother mentioned this fact. I preferred to loiter in front of the shop windows of the bookstores that sold used or new books. Leipzig is a city of merchants and books, a good combination. We turned the corner of the city hall and Auerbach’s tavern and, without being in a hurry, we reached the train station, even after having a cup of coffee at the Felsche café. Anyway, we only got as far as Halle, where the train stopped. The railroad workers had gone on strike; the platforms were crowded with angry, more or less desperate passengers. We had to get off the train.
I suppose it was a regional work stoppage. Anyway, it lasted only until the next morning. In the meantime, one part of the crowd had dispersed to the waiting room of the station, and the other part had gone to the hotel. We also managed to find two rooms in the vicinity of the station; the lobby of the hotel was packed with foreigners who were gesticulating or sitting on their baggage. One was going to a wedding, another was going to be late to a funeral, another was counting his money, which was not enough to pay for a room for the night.
“Just what we needed!”, said my mother, “and in Halle of all places.” She harbored some kind of prejudice against the city, with whose origins I am unacquainted. And her prejudice would be confirmed yet again. Outside, it began to drizzle; it was November, if not according to the calendar, then at least by the weather. It was probably late winter, since the street was covered with dirty slush. Anyway, we were lucky to have found a refuge; we said good night and we then retired to our rooms to get some rest. Our rooms were connected by a door.

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