Part 2 out of 5
girl like Emmy throw herself away upon a dark foreign type. True, I had
money and a duke's title, but there are also Japanese, Turkish and
Persian noblemen, who are therefore not yet a match for a pretty
cultured English maiden. So without any mental scruples, with the calm
conviction of the Englishman that his actions are perfectly justified,
Harry Truant came between us two with a stanch, even, steady wooing.
And what immediately struck me with distressing clearness was the
greater ease with which Emmy and Harry understood each other. They were
at home in each other's world and immediately understood each other's
ways, each other's tastes, each other's humors. Perhaps in the
beginning my exoticism had been to my advantage through the incentive
of the strange and new. But my incomprehensible caprices, my strange,
sometimes passionate, sometimes utterly reserved behavior had wearied
and frightened Emmy for some time. And I saw that the more familiar and
wonted ways of her thoroughly English countryman did her good and were
more agreeable to her. I saw all this with bitter resignation; I
thought that I was receiving my rightful deserts.
Yet the dear girl would not lightly have cast me off for another. It
had never come to an actual proposal and she might consider herself
free. But she was scrupulous enough to feel herself bound even by an
unconfessed affection, by the intimacy of our conversations and by the
one kiss. I realized this and in grieved and hopeless self-sacrifice,
wished to put a stop to it.
"I know quite well what is going on, Emmy," I said one night as we sat
together at the river's edge. "I only want to tell you that you must
not consider yourself bound to me. You are free?"
She looked at me a while, irresolutely and with a sorrowful expression.
Then she said, gently shaking her head:
"What does ail you, Vico? What is it that is lurking in your mind that
you behave so strangely toward me?"
Her gently compassionate voice, the ardent confidential tone, the dear
expression of her face, were more than I could bear. I felt the tears
coming and clenched my fists. It was no use. I had to get up and went
on a little further, leaning my head and hand against the rough bark of
a tree, by force restraining my sobs, when I felt a gentle hand upon my
"Vico!" she said.
But with a nervous jerk I shook her hand off my shoulder and in a
choking voice said:
"Do not touch me. I am not worthy of you." The hand dropped and I
realized that she became somewhat cooler and more cautious. Of course
she began to suspect something very bad.
"Can't you tell me, Vico?" she asked, not unkindly but much more
"No, Emmy. Never! - Think that I love you as no one else can ever love
you. . . . But I am not worthy of you, and I want you to be happy. I
shall stand in your way no longer. Do not trouble yourself about what
will become of me."
"Poor boy!" said Emmy earnestly and tenderly. "Is it really something
"Absolutely insurmountable, Emmy. Think of it no more, God bless you!"
"God bless you, Vico!" said Emmy, following me with a look half
sorrowful, half resigned.
More resigned than I liked to see.
Such farewells have taken place before and have also often been
followed by reconciliations, yes, by several farewells and
reconciliations. But here there was not the mutual equality of vehement
passion, and not the singleness of purpose that, overriding all
scruples, wins by perseverance. My rival made swift and prosperous use
of the advantage afforded him.
I avoided Emmy's house, but still occasionally visited the club which
Captain Truant also frequented. And a few weeks later I saw him enter
there one evening and receive the congratulations of his friends. I
realized what this meant and with a paralyzed, icy feeling I remained
seated, staring at the paper which I pretended to read.
But the lucky fellow stepped up to me, he was not noble enough to wish
to spare me.
Among those who noisily greeted and congratulated him there was also an
officer, nicknamed "the gallant capting" by the others, an
insignificant, blustering little fellow with a monocle, for whom I felt
a particular aversion, because he, although ever himself the dupe, when
he had drunk a good measure, would now and then with his brutal
volubility and English jokes successfully turn the laugh on me, the
stranger. Loudly laughing and talking to Harry he came and stood close
"And how about Dina, now?" the braggart asked Truant.
"Hush! hush, man!" said Truant. "A little discretion, if you please!"
But the tipsy fop would not be shut up so quickly.
"Will you give me authority to fill the vacant place, Harry? As
lawfully authorized comforter?"
"All right! All right!" said Harry Truant, to get rid of him.
But I had distinctly heard and comprehended everything. Or rather I
only comprehended that by a word of authority I had suddenly obtained
permission to do exactly what my body desired. The tormented body,
desperate from the long struggle of serpent and eagle, now desired
vengeance and destruction. The room, the gas lights, the chairs,
everything in an agreeable, even pleasant fashion began to fade, to
float, to wheel about -- and with the silent murderous resolution that
in like circumstances had characterized my forefathers of the masculine
line, I clutched Harry Truant by the throat.
If these memoirs were to find an English or American publisher, it
would be politic to announce here that the Englishman with his
practised boxing fists with ease doubled up the Italian and knocked him
into a corner, unconscious. Anything short of that the public of
Rudyard Kipling would not stand for, of course. Yet I prefer to state
the truth: that Harry Truant and Vico Muralto dealt each other some
ugly blows that night, but without deadly consequences, and that they
were with difficulty separated by those present. The challenge for a
duel, as conflicting with the laws and morals of his country, was not
accepted by the English officer, which at the time greatly vexed me and
stamped him in my eyes as the very soul of cowardice and dishonor, but
which to-day I not only excuse, but highly respect.
That same year Harry and Emmy went to India as husband and wife. Vico
and his father entered upon their last journey together.
In my youth people sometimes called me a poet, and though they employed
the term vaguely and at random, yet it was not wholly unjustified. For
I am a destroyer of suggestion, a shatterer of the group, a wanderer
from the herd, an idol-hater, but also a searcher for joy, beauty and
bliss, a lover of reality; and all these are characteristics of a poet.
But making verses did not suit me. Let me call it unwillingness; then
you may speak of the impotence, and perhaps, even so, we are both
saying the same thing. I honor and admire the great singers, but I
myself have always felt a barrier when I wished to metamorphose my
personal and intimate emotions into separate entities and into public
property. I felt as though I must kill them first, before administering
this cure, as Medea did with her father-in-law Æson, - and that I could
I was equally impotent to create imaginary characters, which in their
own way revealed my sorrows, my weaknesses, my follies and my virtues,
forming new personalities with independent life: as my dear friend
Goethe created Werther, Faust, Egmont and Tasso.
I realize that it must have been a great delight and consolation and
also a strong proof of humility and love, an admirable emulation of the
Divine Creator and enriching of the human world. But I myself could
never attempt it.
My great grief seemed to me too sacred and too intimate to put it into
little verses and send these out into the world as singing birds, to my
own relief and the delight and edification of all.
Moreover I found it humiliating to make my own nature into a mask and
in a well-sustained rôle let it aspire for human applause; as is the
custom of my young friend Nietzsche, who lances such vehement tirades
against actors and comedians, but does not seem to perceive how much he
himself, like all poets, is an histrionic artist.
Here also I decidedly lacked the truly humble love of mankind that must
have moved my surely not less proud friends, Shelley and Goethe. In the
bard and the actor I always seemed to see the courtier.
Ariosto had his Alfonso d'Este and Goethe his Carl August.
And the great bards of freedom of the past century, Shelley, Byron,
Hugo? Ali! Were they not courtiers of King Demos?
I am not an enemy of King Demos, and I know that his earthly realm is
at hand. May he replace and rule all kings until King Christ rules
supreme among men. I wish him prosperity and glory, as Diogenes, I
imagine, must have wished to Alexander. But to be his courtier, I
always lacked the necessary self-denial, and to rebel against him, like
friend Nietzsche, there again I had too much realization of his worth
and power. So that, impotent to be a lord and unwilling to be a
courtier, I was driven into this forgotten nook. And here, to keep body
and soul together, I must be something of an actor after all now, and
play the philistine part, though it be vi coactus and not for human
applause; while I, a lowly slave, nevertheless through my quiet mental
activity enjoy the highest freedom in my chains, proclaiming to King
Demos the weakness and instability of his power, because he shall not
himself ascend the throne without the help of tyrants and shall be
driven off by a yet more mighty and righteous Lord. And even for this
Lord I am still a critical and fault-finding subject, but I think these
are the ones he prefers.
In these first days of profound sorrow I strove with even greater
effort to know who this Christ was who had redeemed us or could redeem
us, and I wrote to my mother about it and read diligently in Emmy's
My mother wrote me long prolix letters in reply, which I read
attentively and reverently, unwilling to admit that they really had
nothing more to tell me. They were the same things - the miracle of
grace, the redemption through the blood of Jesus - repeated over and
over again in all sorts of new inversions and combinations, so that it
seemed a miracle already that with so few notes one could make so much
music. My father was well aware of these letters and furtively regarded
me half scornfully, half disturbed, as I sat deciphering them patiently
and with earnest devotion to the last syllable. That it was all over
with Emmy was a relief to him, but all the more anxiously he watched
this animated correspondence and the increase of the maternal
influence; especially as I should shortly attain my majority.
We had gone to Holland on our last trip to the little seaside resort on
the North Sea with its unpronounceable name, and thus I for the first
time tarried in that strange little nook of Europe, that was to become
the seat of my voluntary hermitage, amid that curious little nation,
which of all nations probably displays the most profound mingling of
lovable and detestable qualities. On this first visit with my father I
saw nothing of the people and little of the country. But I saw the
coast of the North Sea and there I learned to love the sea more than
when I sailed her. On that sandy coast we became intimate, the sea and
I, there she took me to her bosom and we communed heart to heart,
whispering the most intimate secrets into each other's ears. There the
sea became for me a being with a soul - as everything is, though we do
not perceive it - and there her aspects and her voice acquired a
meaning, as all that we call lifeless has a meaning.
And on this first visit I went with my father to see the works of
Rembrandt, with some doubt and unbelief and prejudice, as befits
Italian patriots. And then with my newly awakened vision of the life of
all things, I saw that this man did with all the living and the dead
about him what the coast of the North Sea had done for me with the sea:
- he showed the meaning and the mysterious life of everything, be it
living or be it dead so to speak. And he showed how living men aside
from their own personal life lead yet another, vaster world-life
without themselves knowing it. And he pictured this world-life as
something beautiful and grand, even though the people and the things
were in themselves ugly.
And this was such a revelation, such a boon for my early matured soul
that I absolutely would not believe that this man, who could do what
none of my greatest countrymen had been able to do, was a perfectly
commonplace Hollander. But I regarded him like some strange god, by
chance incarnate here, and I revered him above all the saints in the
calendar. Yes, I wished in a vague sort of way that he might prove to
be Christ, for then I, should know what to believe. For it may be very
fine to manifest, as Giotto and Fra Angelico, and Rafael and Titian,
how beautiful human nature is and can be imagined; but yet there is
more comfort and salvation in revealing how in the unlovely, mean and
ugly the divine life dwells, and is beautiful and can be seen as
beautiful even by us poor human beings. Yes, even though it were ever
so imperfect, as in many a canvas that seems to me like an anxious and
desperate struggle to bring out something at least of the everlasting
beauty, - it was there, it was visible, perchance a faint ray in a
dark, dreary cloud of ugliness, and the great task was again
accomplished, the great consolation offered.
And finally I visited with my father the little village where Spinoza
led his quiet philistine's life, and patiently bored the hole through
which the confined thoughts could find an outlet. And when I saw the
little house and the quiet, peaceful landscape and heard of the lonely,
sober, chaste life of this equanimous and devout Jew, I desired for
myself no better lot than to be able to follow his example as soon as
It has taken a little longer than I thought at the time; stronger and
more continued rubbing with the rough world was necessary to charge my
soul with such high potency that, as his, it would emit bright sparks
in isolation. But now it has come about after all, and I would not
contradict you if you said that it was Rembrandt and Spinoza who drew
me to the regions sanctified by their labors for the fulfilment of my
life's task, had not this meditative dwelling sphere been already dear
to me for other reasons.
On the day I came of age a letter from my mother arrived in which she
reminded me that I was now free to go my own ways, and moreover
informed me that on her journey from the north she would stop in
Holland and hoped that she might at last clasp me in her arms again.
It was a momentous day for me when at last I was to see again my saint,
adored so many years in the holy, dusky light of memory. My heart beat
and my hands trembled as I stood behind the sleek hotel porter in front
of the closed door of the apartment and heard the voice - soft,
languidly cordial - inviting me to enter.
There she stood, tall, straight, the same face with the light gray eyes
with the deep rings under them, but much paler now, and the once blonde
hair showing silvery white beneath the black lace veil. She was dressed
in black and white with a great silver crucifix on a black chain. I
fell upon my knees before her, kissing her hands. She kissed me on the
brow and lifted me up. I trembled with emotion when I felt her cool,
soft lips, and saw her face, with the delicate pale violet and amber
tints and the fine countless little lines crossing one another, so near
my own. And I breathed the old familiar perfume of frankincense and
lavender and felt her pure breath upon my brow. It was a moment of
consecration. Even had she not been my mother, I should have felt awe
and veneration for this stately and distinguished woman with her
expression of long and patiently endured affliction, her fresh,
well-preserved old age, her solemn, dignified garb and the peculiar
sphere of purity and chastity that seemed to surround her. All my shame
and humiliation came to my mind and threatened to relieve itself in a
flood of tears. I longed to confess, to reveal all the ugliness and
foulness in my soul, so that she should purify it through her power.
Woman in the last period of her life, when maternity slips away from
her, can, if she well understands her new position and with wisdom
sustains it, become a new human creature clothed with a higher dignity.
Man in the fulness of his years still ever remains the male, and the
lover. Woman is directed toward another sexless position and fulfils a
new part not of minor importance. Thus I conceived it, when I saw my
mother, and I comprehended now why some nations so greatly revered the
power of priestesses and sibyls or feared the power of witches. I felt
the influence of an unknown potency, a natural consecration that could
forgive, purify, bless, absolve and prophesy wholly according to
priestly prerogative, but stronger here where God and Nature ordained
it than where human authority officially and formally conferred it.
My impulsive nature would undoubtedly have driven me to make a full
confession even at this first meeting, had I not soon become aware of
another person in the room. For a moment I thought of my sister, but
then I remembered that my sister had taken the veil. This was a pretty
young woman whose beauty, quite differently than with Emmy, I
immediately saw and appreciated. She had large, dark, serious and
gentle eyes, a fresh white complexion and dark glossy hair that was
brought down low over the temples, braided and twisted to a knot in
back. She was also dressed in black with a white lace collar and a gold
breast pin in which were enclosed some brown plaits of hair. She stood
at the window somewhat shy and embarrassed while I greeted my mother,
but I saw her eyes shining with kindly satisfaction that she had been
allowed to witness this scene.
My mother told me that this was Lucia del Bono, her faithful friend and
adopted daughter. And I could notice that Lucia's veneration for my
mother was almost as deep as mine, and also that the two women had
talked about me a great deal and that this meeting was an important
event not for the elder one alone.
In the unbearable grief for my lost love these visits to my mother and
her beautiful, sympathetic companion now became my greatest solace and
it was not long before I saw from my father's dark and suspicious
glances, from his listless and discouraged air, which suddenly made the
still vigorous man appear aged, and from his almost invariably silent
and tightly compressed lips, that he realized what was going on.
He did not ask, and I did not speak. But we both felt that we had been
seized by an irresistible current which was sweeping us toward an
Holland may be described as a painting whereof the frame constitutes
the most impressive part. It is a fit dwelling place for the hermit who
from inward meditation amid hazy meadows, dreamy cows, and peaceful
little towns can easily turn to the contemplation of the greatest
revelations of the gods - the vast heavens, the clouds and the sea. But
toward the people he must learn to assume the attitude of the ancient
hermit toward the spiders and rats in his cell. Sometimes they are
annoying and disagreeable; sometimes too, in their revelations of life,
instructive and interesting. I live on good terms with the inhabitants
of this quiet little town because I never let them see how I think of
them, and never show myself as I really am. To this attitude, which,
with sharper insight, they would consider haughty conceit, I owe my
reputation as a modest and respectable man. Were I humble enough to
treat them as my equals by being natural with them, they would then
call me a conceited ass and a cad.
But on one point we understand each other, on the subject of the water,
the sea and the sport of sailing. If I kept a horse and rode to my
nursery in the morning they would consider me a fool and I should
surely never have become treasurer of the orphanage. But the fact that
I have a yacht and frequently show them what storms she can weather,
raises me in their esteem. Only the sea can arouse in these little
shrivelled souls a dim shadow of the old boldness and beauty of life.
True, most of them are too much attached to their miserable little
lives to risk them solely for the sake of stirring emotions without
compelling need, and they prefer to let me go on my reckless
expeditions alone or accompanied by the well-paid fisher lad. But they
do not laugh at my recklessness, and at the club I notice that they
regard the old gentleman with a certain amount of respect when he
returns again from one of these sailing expeditions, which many a young
seaman would refuse to undertake even for the sake of profit, and does
not even brag or boast of it, but only slightly smiles at the
exclamations of respectful amazement. Thus they honor physical courage,
which is nothing more than muscular strength and a craving for the
pleasing excitement of danger, while the moral courage to reveal to
them the true nature of my thoughts and feelings they would punish with
such sharp and malicious ill-will that in order to retain my peace of
mind and pursue my life's task undisturbed, I think I should not
challenge it and prefer to deceive them.
It was my father who made me a slave to the intoxication of the
thrilling suspense of sailing out amidst whistling winds, seething
foam, immense surging waves round about, fallow driving clouds above,
the tugging taut rope in one hand, the straining tiller in the other,
the eye travelling from sail to horizon, from pennant to ocean, the
boat trembling the while from the waves breaking against her bow, and
amid this tumult weighing the chances for a safe homecoming, total
submersion or the breaking of the rigging. It was then he felt
happiest; it deadened his melancholy, as biting on wood deadens a
gnawing toothache. And he found in me a willing pupil, eager as I was
for violent emotions and tortured by self-contempt, wild passions and
all the pangs of lost love-joys.
In Holland, too my father had immediately hired a boat to sail the
ocean, and the Scheveningen seamen had quite some trouble to make him
understand that the North Sea was not an Italian gulf or lake and in
rough weather would not permit of any rash enterprises in small
sailboats. Yet after a few weeks, be managed to attain his object and I
followed him gladly.
One afternoon we had sailed out, dressed in our oilskins, and the
skipper who, submerged to the waist, had pushed us off the shore
through the breakers, had warned us to be back within two hours, for at
that time the ebb-tide set in and, with the fresh north breeze, the
strong current would make it difficult for us to land. My father had
nodded as though he were thinking of something else and had long ago
penetrated and computed the caprices of the gray and formidable North
For an hour we sailed on silently, as was frequently our wont, my
father holding the rudder. The coast had dwindled to a faint luminous
line above which like a thin white mist hung the foam of the breakers.
I lay on the deck, glanced toward land and horizon - then at my watch,
"Come about; father, it's time." He did not seem to hear, and I turned
toward him repeating: "It's time! come about!" Then I saw that be did
not want to hear. He had hauled the mainsail in closely, luffing
sharply, the sheet tightly drawn, and was staring fixedly and straight
ahead under the large yellow sou'-wester. His eyes had the hard grim
expression of old people who after a long life of struggle still fight
for the bit of breath left them, or of indulged and long-tortured
invalids, or of the starved or shipwrecked who no longer have feeling
for anyone or anything but their own distress. Between his
close-cropped gray whiskers and his tightly pressed lips I saw - what
before I had never noticed - two sallow lines deeply furrowing his
cheeks. All at once I felt a pity, such as I had never felt for him
before - as though the realization of all the grief which he had
suffered under my very eyes now suddenly penetrated my consciousness.
"What ails you, father?" I asked. He began talking away regardlessly as
though there were no wind and no waves about him.
"You said three years ago that by this time you would be lost. I think
you are right. You are."
"No, father, I think I was mistaken. I am beginning to see salvation."
"You do not see salvation, Vico, you see ruin. I understand it very
well. Your mother has you again in her clutches. She is a harpy; do you
know the monsters? Part woman, part vulture. They suck away half your
healthy life-blood and replace it with gall. Melancholy and gloom are
her idols. Suffering, pain, grief, trouble, bitterness - these are the
archangels in her heaven. She makes sorrow her object of worship, and
she pictures her God as a hideous corpse hanging on a cross with
pierced bands and feet, covered with blood, wounds, scars, sores,
matter, dirt and spittle, - the more horrible the better. And that
attracts the dull masses exactly as the colored prints of murders and
barbarians depicted in the papers. Was there ever more devilish error?"
"And if salvation can only be bought with pain, father? If all this
suffering was the price of redemption for our sins?"
"Jew!" my father snapped at me with glittering eyes, his mouth drawn
disdainfully in unutterable contempt! "Jew! where did you learn this
bartering morality? Buy! Buy! everything can be bought! If you are but
willing to pay, you can go anywhere, even to heaven. Salvation can be
bought for a slaughtered human being. A fixed price and dirt cheap! -
Salvation for all mankind for the corpse of a single Jew. What a
bargain! and God is Shylock, be holds to his bond! his bond! Blood is
the fixed price, nothing can change that. If not the blood of sinners
then let it be the blood of my son. Thus reads the contract:
'My bond! My bond!
My deeds upon my head! I crave the law!
The penalty and forfeit of my bond!'
"Do you know, Vico, why the Jews are hated so everywhere? It is
instinctive resentment because the world feels that it has been
infected with the Jewish poison. The priesthood, the black vermin, is a
Jewish Germanic bastard brood. They have made a Jew of God himself and
they will make one of you too. And that my son! my child, the heir!"
The suffering on my father's face was terrible to see. Tears began to
flow from his fixed eyes.
I tried to calm him. "Do come about, father! - it's over time!"
"We'll go on a while yet," he said with a ghastly affected airiness,
and I sat there with the blood freezing in my veins, fearing he was
going mad. All at once he burst out again.
"The blood of his son! the blood of his son! to buy off sin with which
he himself had burdened us - his own debts thrust on us and accepted by
us against our will and pleasure, and this acceptance paid for with the
blood of his own child. What a Jew! What a sly, heartless usurer! Did
you make these debts, Vico? - value received? What did you get for it?
What did you get for this hereditary sin? Hereditary sin! Ha! ha! ha!
hereditary sin! what an invention! - Hereditary debt! What a crafty,
bartering Jew one must be to invent such an idea."
Once more I made an attempt, and standing upright at the mast I cried
"Come about, father! - about!"
But he called back with even greater vehemence:
"Go ahead, I tell you!"
And then whilst I looked about over the sea and considered what to do:
"I tell you, Vico, there is life and there is death. And we must live
as long as we can. But it must be real life too. Death is no life. The
life of most men is a slow miserable death. There is no honor and no
merit in maintaining a life that should more truly be called death. A
bloodless, enervated, foul, rotten life. It is a shame that men do not
yet know how to live, and even greater shame that they know still less
how to die. I wanted to have you live. But I did not succeed and now I
shall teach you to die. - Are you afraid?"
Then something began to stir and rise up in my soul, like a snake
goaded forth from her cavern. I, too, began to forget the wind and the
waves about me. True, I felt a tingling down my back to my very finger
tips. Yet I was not a coward and I spoke firmly:
"I am not afraid, father. I believe I shall know quite as well as you
how to die if it should be necessary, even without your teaching me.
But I won't be murdered, not even by my father."
The tears from the fixed, now red-rimmed eyes began to flow more
"Vico!" he cried in a much softer, trembling voice: "Will you be true
to me then? Will you let yourself be saved? Will you save your precious
life and your reason? Will you abjure this accursed harpy? Will you
escape the sinister band?"
But I was irritated and excited and proudly replied: "I shall save
myself, I shall be true to whomever I find worthy. I do not respect the
man that curses my mother."
Then his face changed horribly, he lifted up his trembling right hand,
thereby awkwardly knocking off the canvas cap from his head so that the
damp gray hair fluttered. He made Jesus' sign of doom in Michel
Angelo's last judgment, screaming loudly meanwhile:
"Then I curse you, do you hear! I curse you, Lodovico Muralto. Your
father curses you!"
I had enough of Old Testament sentiments left in me not to be
indifferent to such an imprecation!
I started, but tried my very utmost to see in him only the raving,
irresponsible maniac. At the same time the thought flashed across my
mind that he himself must also have been infected by Jewish ideas, that
he should clutch at these weapons, more sounding than wounding. But I
said nothing, walked up to him and from behind his hand attempted to
grasp the tiller. "About!" I cried.
"Very well! about!" my father cried fiercely, and with that be wrenched
the tiller out of my hand and pulled it violently toward himself, so
that instead of sailing before the wind it struck us directly on the
beam with mainsail closely hauled and sheet fixed.
Even had I desired death as eagerly as he did at the time, yet now I
would instinctively have resisted. Seamanship teaches scorn of death
but still greater scorn for bad man?uvring. "Blockhead!" I cried out,
hastily cutting the taut rope so that the sail fluttered out into the
wind like a half-escaped bird. But the boat had shipped so much water
that I could not right her again and in a moment she was entirely
swamped. I climbed to the high side stretching out my hand to my
father. But he gave me one look of bitter scorn, shook his head and let
himself sink, freeing his hand with a wild jerk from a loop in the
After this, I drifted about four hours. We had been missed and the
life-boat had been sent out after us, but for a long time was unable to
find me, as the dusk had begun to fall. Finally I was picked up by a
fisherman who signalled for the life-boat to come and get me. I had
lost consciousness and when I awoke it was night and I found myself in
bed hearkening to the soft voices of two women in the room. I thought I
was in Italy with my mother and my nurse in our house at Milan, so
eloquent of the past were the old familiar sharp sss and rr sounds of
these soft Italian whisperings. But soon I recognized the Dutch hotel
furnishings, Lucia, and beneath the black lace veil the silvery hair of
my venerable mother.
When for four hours, wet and benumbed upon a wave-swept piece of wood,
with nothing round about but the sea and falling night, one has fought
for the maintenance of a thing, one begins to consider that thing
important after all, even though before it was ever so indifferent to
I had never valued my life so highly; but after I had once been incited
to a stubborn, desperate but successful resistance against the attempt
of robbing me of it, it had become dearer to me. Now I was determined
to know everything there is to be known concerning the value of this
Why did I make this tremendous effort? What do I gain by it? And all
these others, none of whom, forsooth, praise life as so glorious and
desirable a joy, what induces them to cling to it so frantically at the
cost of so much pain and trouble?
My father had taught me, and no one, not even my mother and the priests
denied it, that we are reasonable beings who ought to act reasonably.
To exert oneself for something undesirable, I consider, and everyone
with me considers, unreasonable. If it is a Jewish idea to do or to
give naught for naught - well, you may label me Jew then. That was also
my idea of justice. And then I felt myself more of a Jew than the Jew,
Spinoza, who says that one should love God without expecting love in
return. My inborn passion for sober truth was stirred to opposition by
these words. I did not believe that this feeling could be true, not
even in Spinoza. He must merely have imagined it because he wished to
be different from the grasping Jews and Hollanders of his age. Right
remains right. Love demands love in return, - and life must be good for
something if we are willing to suffer and struggle for it. I could be
as liberal and generous as the best of Italians, but the highest
striving in all nature is for balance, and he who lets himself be
pushed off his chair disturbs the balance instead of preserving it, and
he who throws his own cabbages to his neighbor's hogs fosters laziness
"Yes! now my life has been saved, dear mother," I said on the first day
of my recovery. "But at the cost of much trouble and distress. Father
and I parted the while he cursed me and I denounced him as a
'blockhead.' I am not superstitious, but these are not comforting
memories. I defied his curse, I resisted him and retained my life. But
for what? Who tells me that he was not right and that it had not been
better for me to die?"
"God has willed it so, my boy. I fear that for your unhappy father
there is no salvation; he died cursing and without repentance. But God
has preserved you so that you should live for him."
"Preserved me to live for him? Does he need me then? The creator of the
sun and the fixed stars, the milky way and the nebulae? Needs me? How
is that, mother?"
"He wished to preserve you through his merciful love. You need him.
Therefore you must live for him."
"If I need him, mother, then he must live for me and not I for him. How
can anyone who needs help himself live for another? God is surely not
in need of help. But I -"
"You must love him with all your heart and all your soul. You must be
ready to offer all to him. You must be willing to bear life and to
suffer for him. You have received everything from him. Joy and sorrow
- it must all be equally dear to you because it comes from him."
"Dear mother, then I must surely have received my reason and my tastes
from him too. And when my father gave me a watch and a compass I
trusted that these things would point right. And when God gives me
reason and tastes, must I then suppose that these point wrong?
Wherefore did I receive them then? My reason calls it nonsensical to
lead a wretched and miserable life, even for the sake of the Almighty
Creator of Heaven and Earth. How can this be pleasing to a supreme
being? What can it matter to him? And my taste calls happiness
desirable and sorrow reprehensible, whether it come from one or from
another. Sugar is sweet though it come from the devil, and quinine is
bitter though it come from God. I cannot taste it differently."
"And is the bitter not just what you need to heal you, Vico?"
"Is it less bitter, therefore? And should I even thank the Almighty for
first letting me get sick, which is unpleasant enough already, and
moreover giving a bitter taste to the medicine which he made necessary?
He has made me so that I feel glad and thankful for whatever gives
happiness and tastes sweet, but not for affliction and bitterness."
"That is your pride, Vico! Your father instilled that into you. Learn
to love God! Lay away your pride. Learn to love God humbly and through
love thankfully to accept the bitter from him."
"Listen, mother. I might say now: Yes! yes! I can repeat it all after
you exactly and persuade myself that I feel it all too. But then I
would lie. And God has made me so that I would rather not lie if I can
help it. I know no reason why I should be thankful to God for
afflictions or should call the bitter sweet and the ugly beautiful. If
he is my creator then he is also responsible for the desires and
feelings of his creature."
"What I tell you, Vico, is something you cannot understand except
through the light of grace. You must be born again through faith. You
reason now as all who trust to their human understanding. I can only
pray that his grace will be poured out over you. And for the sake of
your mother, who loves you so, you surely do not wish to shut your
heart and blind yourself to the true light? You surely will want to
hear what the church teaches and want to obey and accept what older and
wiser people, through love, tell and advise you."
"My heart is open to every light, mother. I am willing to hear and to
consider everything. But though I would ever so gladly, I cannot obey
and accept unless what I am told and advised seems acceptable to me."
"May God break your self-conceit!" my mother sighed.
What I have written here is an average and collective type of many
hundreds of conversations which I had with my mother during the ten
years following. With the indefatigable zeal of flies incessantly
buzzing up and down and striking against a window pane, we two
tenacious and autocratic persons tried to thrust upon one another our
own peculiar individuality. My mother with a more aggressive love, I
more on the defensive, but in my self-assertion, none the less
militant. Possessed by the universal conceit of the reasonableness of
our feelings and convictions, neither one of us noticed that this was
simply a struggle between two natures whereof one was trying to subject
the other. And accustomed as almost all the human herd to the idolatry
of the true word, we both imagined that by merely talking, talking we
could finally make the word which we ourselves considered true the idol
of our fellow-man too, like two missionaries of different faith holding
up their symbol before one another until one of the two falls on his
And the mother now said that it was the father's education that made me
refractory, just as the father had thought to oppose the maternal
influence: as though they continued the old feud about me and through
The four hours of anxious suspense on the capsized boat, my father's
curse ringing in my ears, his grim sinking face before my eyes, had
struck such a deep gash into my young and tender soul that at first I
would awaken every morning from a dream, in which the whole thing was
lived through again, crying for help in a voice hoarse from screaming
as I had cried so long across the lonely dusky sea. Only very gradually
did these evil memory dreams cease, and till late in my life they would
recur whenever my power of resistance was weakened.
These dreams acted upon me like warnings, repeating the stern lesson of
the terrible event. "You have repelled your father and chosen your
mother's side. You have rejected his ideas and thereby driven him to
death. And what if he had been right now? Are you sure that your mother
deserved this sacrifice? Are you sure that your life was worth saving?
What have you - really - of that life which you so desperately
defended? By your defiance you have taken a heavy responsibility upon
yourself. You must now seek this assurance: the assurance that your
father was in the wrong and that you are doing right by continuing to
live and adhering to your mother."
These were the warnings that beset me every morning when the morning
light had once more dispelled the fearful vision. In vain I sounded the
depths of my soul - to find whence issued these compelling and
distressing thoughts. A power dwelt within me which seemed to possess a
mighty voice, and a strong coercive force when I did not want to
listen. And I soon observed that this power increased in proportion as
I felt weaker and more discouraged. Was it the voice of the herd, which
my father had taught me to despise, but which he no more than I could
infallibly distinguish from his own voice? Who was this speaker, this
There existed a bridge of heartiness and affection between my mother
and myself which always remained practicable even when the flood of
controversy raged highest. When it seemed as though we would never
understand each other, we would simply stay the structure of our
phrases and without détour approach one another through the ever open
door of our love, without troubling ourselves about logic or
And Lucia was much less averse to theology than Emmy. Supplied by my
mother with shining words of authority and bombastic arguments, and no
less anxious than my mother herself to let the son participate in the
joy of her conviction, she eagerly granted any request for engaging in
deep conversation. We did not go walking alone together, as this did
not agree with her principles of education, but when we three were
together the origin and prospect of our life was discussed more, and
with greater fervor, than anywhere probably in all the little seaside
town, perchance in all the little land.
And it is good that people do not act as reasonably as they imagine,
otherwise we should see all mankind engaged in such conversations: they
would forget to reap the harvest, to start the trains, to keep the
fires of the factories going.
For it is strange to see everyone making the greatest efforts and
wearing himself out and hardly anyone trying to render account to
himself of the why and wherefore. Especially the so-called thoughtful
people cut a strange figure, as usually they all disagree, or only
agree about their own ignorance; and yet they go on living complacently
without earnestly persevering in their efforts of reaching a
conclusion. They all pretend to believe in the true word, but they do
not manifest much faith in their idol, because words concerning the
most important truths have but little power to attract them. It is good
so, for otherwise, from sheer uncertainty, the entire machinery would
come to a standstill and the truly free, such as you, dear reader, and
I, would find no opportunity to gather the leading truths for them,
and, wrapped in glowing formula, so dexterously to throw them before
their feet that they perceive them and pick them up as their own
Lucia del Bono was not only a beautiful, but also a bright, clever and,
as my mother assured me, good and noble Italian woman. She had lost her
parents, and my mother who had taken her into her home as her adopted
daughter, was her saint, her oracle. Whatever mother did was good,
whatever mother said was true, what mother wished was the nearest to
God's will of anything we could know. And soon I perceived that, among
other things, mother had long wished Lucia to become my wife. Through
Emmy's loss and through the unchanging persistence of my passions,
Satan's voracious pets, I however considered myself peculiarly fitted
for a monastery, if I could only once reconcile myself to the doctrines
suitable to such a life.
"After all, there is no other way of salvation for me" - I once said to
my mother when I was alone with her on the hotel veranda. "Now I may
indeed have holy resolves again and make solemn promises, but I look
reality too squarely in the face to believe, myself, in these promises.
I can never love a woman more truly and more fervently than Emmy, - and
even this love was not strong enough to shield me from the temptations
of the low and the vile. If I remain in the world, I shall nowhere
escape temptation. I have seen enough to know that there is temptation
everywhere for one like myself. It is bitter and humiliating,
particularly for one with a proud and haughty nature, and who does not
like to turn away from an enemy. I feel myself a match for men and
would be willing to fight an overpowering majority, but God has left me
defenceless in the hands of women."
To this mother replied: "There is no life more splendid and lofty than
that of the monk who denies and suppresses all the lower, worldly and
transitory feelings in order to let the eternal develop the more
freely. But it requires a good deal to consecrate yourself wholly to
Jesus, Vico dear. If only you are strong enough for that!"
"No, mother! I want to do it just because I am not strong enough to
resist the world and my fleshly desires. I must be in an absolutely
pure environment and lead an abstemious life, only then will I remain
good. I have tried it for three weeks. But then I fell ill and was
nursed and petted by kind hands and then Satan again had me in his
"You can fall ill in a monastery too, Vico. And Satan will not leave
you in peace there either. Think of how even the saints were tormented
by demons and temptations."
"Ali, mother, what I have read about that, and seen on paintings,
proves that they do not know my temptations. Did you imagine that I
would succumb to the pretty ladies who troubled Antonius of Padua? They
are much too pretty, too poetic, I should say. With them I would feel
ashamed. And all those monsters and demons, as Teniers paints them,
they would not frighten me in the least. I know them well from my
dreams. They give you a fright, but you can easily drive them away,
much more easily than -"
"Than what, Vico?" my mother asked. But before I could conquer my
strong disinclination to give an idea of the true nature of my
visitants, Lucia came out of her room.
"What do you say to this, little daughter!" my mother said with grave,
almost embarrassed mien, "Vico wants to enter the priesthood."
It was curious to mark the change of expression on Lucia's face. With a
peculiar wide, shining look, her great dark eyes travelled from mother
to me, but she cleverly concealed that it was a painful surprise. She
could not suppress a deep blush, however, and when she felt it and
realized that it could not help betraying an all too deep and painful
interest, the blush of shame became yet deeper.
"That is fine!" she said in a voice solemn with emotion.
"If Christ will only accept me," I said; "according to you two I am
still half a heathen."
"Oh, he will surely accept you! he will be good to you!" said Lucia, in
a tone which betrayed more certainty concerning the being of whom she
spoke than Emmy's "Jesus Christ our Lord."
"How do you know that so surely, Lucia?" I asked, immediately
attentive. "Do you know him so well? Can you explain to me what he is?"
"Do I know him?" she cried out passionately, with a little
comprehensive smile at mother. "What shall I reply, mother? He asks
whether we know the dear Lord Jesus."
"What would you yourself reply, Vico, if she asked you whether you knew
me, your mother?"
I was silent, and thoughtfully regarded the two women, so obviously
convinced. Then Lucia said: "I know him much better, Vico, than you
know your mother, for you have not had her near you for very long, nor
is she with you all the time. But my Jesus never leaves me. I have
always had him near me as long as I can remember day and night."
I said nothing, but looked at her encouragingly, intimating that she
should go on and tell me more of Jesus. And she did it gladly, - far
more eagerly than Emmy, - and though it was not all clearly and
absolutely lucidly expressed, not entirely connected and too long, to
repeat it all to you here, yet it was captivating and instructive and,
to me, implied the existence of a firm and neither weak nor transitory
Suggestion is a very convenient word with a meaning easily adaptable to
all sorts of explanations; but if there were no bounds and no end to
this explaining by suggestion, we might as well rub out from our
suggested slate of life, with a suggested sponge, the whole beautiful
world of clear and eternal realities. No, the Christ of Lucia and my
mother was no suggested fancy, but a living reality.
But what was he?
Of the Bible the two women knew very little. My mother, despite her
Northern origin, had had an Italian Catholic education as well as
Lucia. In this, for valid reasons, the Bible is forbidden. They did not
speak much of the life of Jesus as an historical person, nor of his
adventures, nor of his teachings. It was his suffering, his martyrdom,
and his death that to them seemed to be above all deserving of
And if I had not known it - if the Nazarene of whom the New Testament
narrates had borne another name, it might perhaps never have occurred
to me to identify him with the Deity worshipped by my mother.
But now that I must needs assume that all information regarding the
being, personally wholly unknown to me, that so occupied the lives of
these two women and of millions of human beings besides, was to be
found in these ancient writings, the English translation of which,
contrary to my mother's wishes, I faithfully kept - now I began to read
with renewed and even closer attention.
But I found nothing to give me light. I found a very beautiful and
touching narrative full of dramatic power, written by the hand of a
master, but to its detriment four times retold with embellishments and
obvious falsifications. And the hero of this narrative was a very human
mortal, more delicate, more sensitive and nearer akin to us than Hiob:
just as bold in the flight of his thought, just as fanatic and even
immoderate in his declarations, and certainly less strong, less
resolute, his character less unmoved by the lot threatening him than
the mighty hero of the older drama. I was deeply stirred by the reading
of this wonderful creation, by the thoroughly human truth of his
struggle, his disappointments, waverings and weaknesses, his courage
and self-denial, his alternately proud and discouraged bearing, his
very explainable self-deception, caused by the influence of his
childish followers and worshippers, his fatal and truly tragic ending,
not desired but foreboded, and manfully not evaded, - immutable
necessary result of human weakness in human heroic strength.
But what did all this have to do with the wonderful reality in which my
mother and millions with her found all their joy and their security,
with which, through which, for which, in which they lived as fish live
in the water?
I found nothing but a little outward resemblance, the name, the death
he suffered. But for the rest it seemed to me that they might as well
have named any other hero of tragedy - Prometheus for example - as the
mighty and loving being that, even now, directed all their steps and
shed light upon their path.
And through many careful and attentive conversations with the fair
Lucia, in the presence of my mother, who was for her the living
fountain from which she gratefully drew when her wisdom threatened to
forsake her, I became convinced that had Lucia been taught that the
divine reality she felt in herself was named Spinoza, because Spinoza
was a God, incarnate in human form, who had lived in Rynsburg as a man,
had proclaimed many words of living wisdom and therefore suffered scorn
and contempt and finally, after a life of simplicity and chastity, had
died in loneliness and poverty for our salvation - the pious maiden
would just as readily have accepted it and would have found exactly as
much strength, happiness and contentment in it.
Do not lose patience, my reader, because I tell you such commonplace
things. Of course as an independently thinking and observing person,
you know all this just as well as I. But for the herd it is all new,
absolutely new. And it will still be so when you read this and I am
dead and for many, many years after. Do not forget that we too belong
to the herd, you and I, and that an accurate comprehension of our
relations does not exclude a loving understanding and a wise affection.
There is joy in my pride only because it rests on an immutable
estimation of worth. I know that the herd thinks and feels slavishly
and I do not, and that it is therefore necessarily subject to me; but
my joy would rot and wither in my pride, did I not know the comforting
and refreshing humility, the humility that by patient deeds of love
unites me to the herd, and gives me full measure of comfort in this
faithful, sincere and patient record for the good of all, so that I
have found peace, tranquillity of mind and a foretaste of bliss in the
utmost spiritual loneliness, in this dead life.
There is neither contentment nor happiness in unshared wisdom.
Therefore I make bold once more to speak plainly of such commonplace
things. If we would build our towers higher and higher, we must seek to
broaden the foundations, otherwise we topple over with our individual
wisdom just as we had imagined heaven attained. The herd does not need
our leading more urgently than we its following.
True, it must have been a great and ingenious Jew, who, now more than
eighteen hundred years ago, wisely responding to the cry of anguish
from his enslaved countrymen for a redeemer, as king, as Christ,
pointed out to them the new man, the meek, the "Chrestus," with whom
the whole earth felt herself pregnant.
No one can have known the divine reality, which so many millions have
called Christ, so profoundly, and have felt it more clearly living in
himself than he, when flown from his subdued and desolate country to
Alexandria, be created the mighty and tragic heroic figure and chose
the name that for so many centuries was to be accepted by mankind, as
the personification and epithet of this same reality.
But I charge him gravely that with Jewish fearfulness he withdrew his
own person from the struggle in which he let his hero perish, and
suffered or even wished his noble and true work of art to be changed
into a false piece of history. What might have gladdened and elevated
poor suffering and blinded humanity as a wonderful masterpiece of art,
like the book of Hiob, or the Iliad, or Prometheus Vinctus, or the
Athene of the Parthenon, or the Zeus of Olympus, showing how man in the
creations of the artist rises highest above personal pettiness and
weakness, how the genius in fiction creates the highest perfection,
such as has never been seen in flesh and blood, - has now, as an
invented historical occurrence, driven the whole world to the rudest
falsifications of truth and impossible efforts of imitation.
The glorious shapes of Phidias, more beautiful than any living human
race has ever actually been, have still brought us joy and inspiration
after a miserable barbaric Christian world bad mutilated and neglected
them, - but the beautiful figure of Jesus, which as a work of art might
have been immortal and beneficent, embellished with Pauline metaphysics
and mixed in the Byzantine sorcerer's pot with Egyptian and Chaldean
hodgepodge, has become an evil spirit for wretched human kind.
For eighteen hundred years the world has been the dupe of this
marvellous dramatic genius and his work, changed in a fatal hour from
fiction to history. I know no stronger proof for the existence of a
malicious devil who takes pleasure in our amusing errors.
And many a night, when it is warm and the sea calm and the doves coo in
the softly whispering elms on the city walls, I wander out of my quiet
little city and gaze over the smooth extent of water, musing for hours
on the beauty and the joy that would now reign on earth if,
unprejudiced and unconfounded, men had asked what God it was that so
mightily revealed himself in them and urged them with such perceptible
will and pressure, and spoke in so audible a voice: if they had
earnestly and attentively hearkened to the constant whisperings and
warnings of their deep true nature, if they had borne and learned to
follow the bridle of this faithful warner in their own soul, who
strongly desires and alone has power to give us peace, - instead of
worshipping the true word, and looking for outward signs and miracles,
and through the beautiful creations of a human genius letting
themselves be seduced to human deification, to stupid imitation, to
fanaticism, to falsification of word and reality, to a sickly pursuit
of pain, glorification of poverty, fear of knowledge, scorn of the
world, hatred of beauty, poor stray sheep!
Then the great and good works of Greeks and Romans, of Indians and
Saracens would have been thoughtfully carried on, art preserved,
knowledge esteemed, - and the garden of peace made verdant with clear
springs of beauty from these two pure fountains. While now, alas! again
and again, in thousands of hearts, the true Christ must die the bitter
death upon the cross because the truest word that he inspired one of
his dearest favorites to utter was besmirched by a flat lie, and his
most beautiful poetical image destroyed by a grossly sensuous error.
But be of good cheer, my reader; the devil made a good move, but shall
lose the game nevertheless. The falsehood poison has soon spent itself,
and the powers of the sick increase. No longer do the shepherdless dogs
drive the flock asunder in a hundred different directions. You live, my
reader, and hear the voice of me, the dead, - and as though heralded
forth by trumpets, you learn that the crucified in you and in me is
also victoriously and gloriously risen again.
It was three weeks before the body of my father was found. A stormy
nor-wester had thrown it high up on shore at the foot of the dunes not
far from the mouth of the Rhine, and a clam-digger came to claim the
promised reward. My mother went there with me and prayed a long time by
the side of the body. I did too, in my own way; that is to say, with a
constant reservation, as one might write a letter to someone whose
address one was not sure of. Nevertheless every prayer is a suggestion
in which through words of invocation one creates an image of a Deity
and through forcibly uttered exhortations and protestations changes
one's own soul. Is there in any act greater possibility for
self-deception? As a child and youth, it is still possible to observe
oneself praying and to continue in the belief that one is acting
worthily and honestly. But for a man, self-observation during this act
usually also carries with it shame at the game that he is playing and
the pose that he assumes.
The body lay in a coffin, already closed, in a tiny church of the
fisher village, and it seemed as though my father's surviving spirit
mocked me for the trifling words with which I, foolish boy, thought to
reach and to move the soul of clouds and sea, of sun and stars. How
childish the burning candles and the chanting voice of the priest
seemed, with the roaring of the wind over the reed-covered sand hills,
and the glowing eye with which the setting sun looked upon her earth
from across the sea.
When the funeral was over, we decided to leave Holland for my native
country. There, in Rome, I would, if anywhere, find my way back to the
mother church. Solemn, talking little, full of expectation, and usually
deep in thought, I travelled swiftly across the continent in the
company of the two women. Italy, that I had not seen for many years,
lured me with a thousand sweet memories, with the combined charm of the
wonderland of sun and beauty which it is to all Northerners, and of the
world of dear childish moods, whose deceiving sweetness increases with
distance and length of separation, and can make even the most barren
country gleam as a place of refuge and consolation. With a little more
experience of life I might have considered beforehand that the real
Italy could not fulfil all the blessed promises of the imaginary Italy.
At the beginning they did indeed all seem to be realized. It commenced
with sunshine, and the vintage - golden light upon browning foliage,
merry country folk and song; a gleam of a better world after the dull
and solemn North: a glorious sensation of being at home among people
who like myself dared to say something graceful and to do something
wanton; the beloved flexible and vigorous sounds of my mother tongue,
and the great joy of the people's craving for beauty and elegance down
into the very lowest circles: roughness and wildness not without a
certain dignity, not simply rude and coarse as with the Northern
barbarians: a poor lad in rags who sings something on the street that
penetrates my inmost soul. Ah! how little the rude among this Dutch
people can do or say that penetrates my soul! If my reason did not tell
me, what then could convince my heart that they and I are beings of a
I cannot dwell here on the charm with which my native land stirred my
emotions when I beheld it again. It has nothing to do with the task and
the duty that I fulfil in these writings. Hundreds of writers can
delight you with subtle sensuous fancies and can comfort you for a
moment with beautiful visions, warming the cold indolent spirit by
colorful, glowing or gracefully woven words. My task is to give lasting
consolation through the unsensual force of unchanging thought, so that
you will know a point of rest in all sorrows and can taste every
pleasure with calmer attention.
In Rome my disillusionment came with the rainy days of winter. Then all
at once it penetrated my consciousness from every side, like a cold
draft through broken window panes - the realization that something was
still wanting here, that in the North had been attained: an established
order of institutions, a general moral integrity. The half-forgotten
shadows of my childhood, hidden behind the beautiful, came to view,
called forth by kindred miseries. We had to live comparatively simply,
and my dignified old mother, as well as I, had to climb the four
chilly, dimly lighted, stony flights to our apartment, where it was
cold and uncomfortable too. To let Lucia go about alone in Rome, like
an English girl in London, was simply out of the question. I myself had
to be very much on my guard against suspicious persons who whisperingly
accosted me with foul proposals. And a stroll through the section San
Lorenzo on a bleak December day, where I saw, how my poor people, kept
in ignorance and filth, manfully battle against suffering and misery,
made me feel that Italy, when her glorious sunlight fades, is still
ever the land of the "sofferenza" and still deserves the cry of
"Ahi, selva Italia! di dolore ostello!"
This sorrowful word never leaves me; often do I sigh it through the
stillness of my gloomily respectable house, the abode of the old Dutch
merchants; and then too perchance I scream it out into the gale on the
open sea-dike where my petty fellow citizens cannot hear it.
In this gray, beclouded, chilly land, where the bleak, restless wind
bends low and razes to the ground everything that standing alone would
lift up its head, less rude anguish is suffered nevertheless than among
the sunny, luxuriant, blue-skied hills of my beautiful native land.
But this does not imply that the Italians should envy this so much more
methodical, cleanly and prosperous nation. For glowing life and
blooming beauty fare still more madly among the Hollanders, and sharp
anguish is more salutary to man, and preferred by the genitive soul of
humanity, than the unfelt evil of ugliness, of dullness and of the
great and beautiful passions stifled by fear. Everywhere in the present
world a minority sensitive to beauty exists among a great horde of
cads. But in no country is the minority nobler, but smaller also, and
the horde more caddish than in Holland - and in imagination I often see
the Neapolitan tramp and loafer stand out as a prince or nobleman among
the inmates of a Dutch village inn, or hall for more respectable
entertainment. But your purse and your life are safer and the average
standard of middle-class respectability higher here below the sea level
than in most countries above.
The first ones that I sought in my native land were the priests, whom
my father had always made me shun. My mother's sentimental wisdom did
not satisfy the wants of my reason, and she herself thought that I
should be easily and swiftly convinced of what, to her, seemed so
evidently true, if I but heard someone versed in the eloquence and the
logical argumentative power which her intuitive knowledge lacked.
But ah me! we were sadly mistaken there, my mother and I.
Her position and rank enabled her to refer me to the very best address;
and none less than one of the most powerful and influential prelates of
the age, an intimate of the Vatican and a political celebrity, was to
guide me, youthful errant, back into the path of salvation. I was much
impressed by his great name, and in the beginning I also could not
withhold myself from the suggestion that goes out from each one into
whose hands the herd has pressed the magic rose of deference and
subjugation. But neither his environment, - a gloomy apartment
tastelessly furnished in bourgeois style, - nor his outward appearance,
a bony, half jovial, half cautiously cunning, more or less boorish face
upon a heavy unwieldy body, was adapted to strengthen my illusion. He
was very genial, talkative, good-natured, and made a little kindly
intended speech to which I sat and listened with the conviction that I
must be making a confused, distressed and foolish appearance.
Subsequently he committed me to the care of one of his younger
disciples, a pale, seemingly timid, but, as was soon manifest, very
strong-willed, ambitious young priest, who scrutinized me with
well-nigh impertinent searchingness, like a doctor his patient.
I did not let my mother notice the tremendous shock that I experienced
at this first visit, as she betrayed her hopeful expectation by a
painful agitation. For her sake, too, I went on and moved in the
circles which I could not really believe quite so bad as my father had
pictured them. But I could not carry it through very long. Even on the
street I would shudder with repulsion when I saw the insignificant,
coarse, often positively unpleasant and villainous faces peering out
from under the rough, black felt hats. It was as though they bore upon
their foreheads the mark of guilt for the misery in which my poor
people were toiling. And no sooner had I gained sufficient knowledge of
the sentiments, the desires, the ideas that peopled the spiritual world
of the young man appointed as my shepherd, then I knew once for all
that his labor would be vain.
He was not an insignificant man, the young priest, nor was he an
ignoble character. At the time I learned, in one moment, to conceive
for him a deadly hatred and contempt. But these are some of our Italian
extravagances. I expected and longed for a hero to help me - and when
anyone came to me with this pretension, but fell considerably below the
mark of a hero, I wished him to the devil and would have liked to kick
him out of my door. Here in my house of meditation by the sea, I have
learned to consider that the young priest possessed many talents, great
learning, a keen knowledge of human nature, a clear, practical mind, an
ambition careful enough not to seek base means for attaining the firmly
desired goal, and a religious conviction which, whether inborn,
acquired, or adopted, needed no further confirmation, and gave him
sufficient tranquillity of mind to set himself with all his might to
acquire the things which, among those his religion allowed, seemed to
him the most desirable.
But oh! the deadly and sterile assurance of these people. Their
confession of faith was not a living, blooming thing that under
continuous distress and delight, daily revealed itself as richer and
more beautiful; not a constantly changing, flowing stream, with its
substance watering and making fruitful the entire world; it was a
heavy, unchanging, tightly shut, square strongbox that stood in a comer
of their lives, safe and well stocked, from which, at stated times
only, and in proportion to their moral needs, they went to cut off the
coupons of tranquillity of mind and spiritual consolation.
He was so astonishingly calm, so tremendously sure of himself, so well
versed in his patriarchs, so practised in all logical disputes, so
thoroughly at home in all the eaves and the alleys, the case-mates and
the bastions of the citadel of his faith, that it seemed as though he
might dare take it up with all the doubters on earth. And yet how poor
he seemed to me, how naked and miserable, locked up in his formulated
system, like a bug in the hollow of a dead piece of wood, helplessly
adrift upon the wild waters of reality. He was not a narrow-minded
fanatic either, and knew the issues of science as well or better than I
- but he had his words, his formulas, his logical snares and ropes, in
which he caught all these troublesome and unmanageable truths and
hitched them to his car of faith: the true word, the correct argument,
the convincing phraseology that is the fine and artfully painted
panorama which the devil employs to separate us from the free true
I was exacting in those days and was not contented with the people, who
were no better than they could be. I did not understand that they felt
it as a duty to submit to the ideas of the group, just as I felt it my
duty to break loose from it. I did not recognize the relative value of
their virtues, because they seemed to me like cyphers, in front of
which the unit of highest virtue, the naught-fearing love of reality,
was missing. And I was still too timid and too modest to give every man
his due cold-bloodedly, to break the bond of absolute sincerity with
him, and to mount the steep path of pride which each truly pious man, -
as you and I, dear reader, - alas! is obliged to take against his will
and pleasure, under penalty of losing time, life and strength, and the
subtle discernment of God's loving signal light, in idle strife and
I shall not name the man here at present: he is already a cardinal, and
when you read this he may be pope. Through negative influence he has
exerted a tremendous effect upon my life. My mother admired and honored
him highly, and it was as though with her own hand she thereby took the
shining halo from her head and smashed it upon the pavement. I could
not be mistaken in this priest: the very highest humanity, the fine
tentacles constantly reaching out toward the divine, the continuous
growing and seeking, the true life were wanting in him. When I wanted
to ascend this path, he became blind and lame and refused to follow,
escaping and evading me by all kinds of winding rhetorical paths, with
a perfectly innocent expression of ignorance upon his pale, calm and
self-satisfied countenance. It was as though his eyes congealed - of my
burning desires they knew nothing. He could say every thing that he
believed, felt and desired, and the unutterable that made him feel and
desire thus and so was to him a word, not a vehemently and helplessly
loved and longed-for reality, as it was to me. This I saw, I felt, I
apprehended; there was no possibility of doubt. And thus I learned two
most important truths: first that all talk about the chiefest part of
our being is mere talk, that is to say, prattle and chatter, worth no
more, no less, and just as misleading and inadequate for mutual
communication and conviction, as all speech; secondly, that even the
best men in their most profound and sacred feelings let themselves be
ruled by other men, or groups of men, not necessarily better than they,
and that they do not realize this constraint, but go on thinking that
they themselves conceive and feel and accept with independent judgment
what is thrust on them by other human beings or human groups.
For this priest considered himself more godly, wiser and better than my
mother and I, and all his masterly eloquence only proved the contrary
to me; and yet I saw that my mother was servile to him and adopted from
him what he again had adopted from the large group of his equals and
kindred spirits, and that all this took place without their realizing
it, through personal influence, and never, as they contended, through
the clear sense of the absolute, with the free judgment directed only
by God's subtle guidance. What became now of all the beautiful light of
Grace and Revelation? persuasion! nothing else! impress of personality
on personality! as the teacher impels the child, the market crier his
peasants, the general his loyal soldiers, the judge the timid witness,
and as the ruling idea - public opinion - impels every individual,
wholly beyond all reason or judgment, or absolute sense, no matter how
strongly, we all may imagine the contrary.
These are subtle, cruel truths that deeply and grievously penetrate a
youthful spirit if it be open to them. You, dear reader, as an
all-renouncing lover of truth, know them as well as I. You know how
terribly corrosive, like a sharp acid, is their discovery, leaving
scarcely any of our ideals uncontaminated and sound. And consider
besides that my spirit was broken by the terrible memory of the
struggle which for years I had carried on with my father, and of his
awful death caused by my clinging to ideals that now indeed all seemed
In my artlessness I had thought that the church in which my mother
found peace and consolation would elect none but chosen heroes among
men as her servants and priests. The very best would scarcely be good
enough for such a dignity.
Instead of this I saw how the first youngster that came along, with a
little hard pegging and servility could work his way up to the
priesthood; how the average stood no higher than the common masses; and
how, among my people, they were more looked down upon and derided than
venerated. And even the very best among them, the highest dignitaries,
were not the heroes, the poets and the sages, who by virtue of their
great human gifts were fitted to be the elect and leaders; but merely
the clever and ambitious, who possessed a little more of that
particular proficiency which helps one on in politics, too - but has
nothing to do with the divine.
If ever I stood close to ruin, it was then. I had lost all hold. My
beloved was far away in the arms of one whom I deemed unworthy; my
saint had lost her crown; my father's voice now seemed to ask me with
mocking emphasis whether it had not been better either to continue
living with him or to go with him into death.
Do you know who saved me, dear reader? Not the beautiful Lucia, whom I
pitied with tender compassion because she was, after all, nothing but a
slight feather upon my mother's breath, - but none less than Satan
himself. Satan saved me, Satan, dear reader; hold this well in mind!
Here is the profound explanation of his nature: he saved me because he
manifested himself so clearly and unmistakably that I simply had to
continue believing in him. And whoever believes in evil as evil cannot
be lost. Just as I, even as later the young scapegrace Nietzsche,
wanted to make a bolt over good and evil, I faced Satan, and the evil
one was so kind that he did me a better turn than any kind human being
ever did me.
As if to manifest himself very plainly, Satan, following the custom of
all mighty principles, became incarnate. I came into contact with a
young seminary student, who bore the name of an archangel and with it a
face that resembled that of the prince of fallen angels more closely
than any known to me. He even, as if to emphasize this, twisted his
black locks above his low forehead in such a way that two horns
appeared to be hidden under them. His eyelids hung rather low over his
brown eyes, that peeped out furtively, and narrowing, twinkled kindly,
while the straight thin-lipped mouth, above the long chin, uttered the
most cruel sarcasms in a high, almost feminine voice.
And yet it was just this man who attracted me more than anyone I had
met in clerical circles. In the first place, by reason of his wit; for
he was an Irishman and full of those sharp and delicious jokes to which
I was very susceptible; but also, because he was the only one who
seemed to understand something of my great, dumb, impotent wrath at the
universal unwillingness of mankind - which at the time I had not yet
learned to look upon as impotence - to recognize the contradiction
between their teachings and their life. Once when he had attended a
conversation between my young teacher and myself, in which, as was my
wont, I had made fruitless efforts to make him sensible of what was
lacking in the entire priestly institution and to free myself from the
meshes of his arguments, he said in leaving:
"You come at an opportune moment, dear Count Muralto! The rôle of
ingénue has long been vacant in our company. But you need not assume it
any more toward the directors. They are already aware of it now, and
there is such a thing as laying it on too thick."
This remark aroused in me great astonishment and interest. I
immediately began to question Michael. Above all, I wished to know how
he found it possible, with such thoughts in his head, to wish to become
"That's not so difficult," said Michael, "if only you learn to keep
order in your thoughts. It all depends on order and exactness, on a
careful double bookkeeping. Every good business man has a private
bank-account which has nothing to do with the business. In the same way
we must learn to keep our private thoughts out of the business. That is
"I am afraid that I shall never learn to look upon the most sacred
office as a merchant's trade."
"Well played, dear ingénue!" said Michael; "but on the verge of
foolishness. To look down upon merchants and business is no longer
naïve, but foolish. Without merchants the Holy Father himself would
starve in prison. The whole world is a trading concern and there's no
harm in that. Our business we rightly call the sacred business because,
at all events, it is still the most trustworthy firm in existence. I
consider it a great honor that I may be its youngest servant and am
thankful that at the same time it can, if I keep my wits about me, also
become a pleasure. The demand that I keep the private account of my
ideas carefully separate from the ledger of the firm, so as not to
cause confusion, I consider very just and moderate. It is so in all
large and practical affairs. There's nothing like order, said the
farmer as he screwed the lid on the coffin of his grandmother, who lay
in a trance and wanted to get out again. Can you make a uniform that
will fit every soldier? Can you fashion a net in which each little fish
will find a mesh exactly fitting its own dimensions? No doctrine is
true for everyone, and no law is just for all. Each must have a care
that he get through the meshes."
"I must admit, brother Michael, that I think your cynicism more
tolerable and more upright than the obstinate hypocrisy of our
prelates. And what you say about the law that cannot be just for all
seems to me worthy of consideration."
"Cynicism! hypocrisy!" brother Michael cried out with a silencing
gesture. "My dear young man, how wildly you throw your rotten apples. A
dog is a good-natured and clever animal, but for that reason it is not
doggish to discriminate correctly. And as long as you artless
blockheads do not understand that proper and successful hypocrisy is
the primal Christian virtue, the practising of which belongs to the
highest religious duties already taught by the Trinity, so long nothing
will come of the Kingdom of God."
After this conversation, about which I said nothing to my mother, I
changed and my attitude became more reserved, cautious and suspicious.
More and more I began with profound amazement to understand the curious
and appalling condition of our social system. But meanwhile the
turbulent passions in me were not calmed and my difficulties remained
the same. As long as I lived in the hopeful suspense of the shipwrecked
who believes that the haven of safety is in sight, the dogs were still.
But when this again ended in disappointment, they grew restive, bold
and troublesome. With every weakening of the spirit and joy in life our
wild beasts get a looser rein, as a ship when its course is blocked
pays less attention to the rudder.
The more I was disappointed in humanity, the more I began to give ear
to the women who in Rome, more vociferous than in London, rioting and
ranting often like unto a band of mænads, go out at night, upon the
hunt for men. And it was not many weeks before just that peculiar
temptation which does not put itself forth with wanton or charming
thoughtlessness, but with good-natured and cold shamelessness debases
itself, had discovered me in my defencelessness and made of me an easy
The complex feeling of self-contempt, shame, assumed light-heartedness,
fear of undesired encounters, and yet more despicable fear of thieves
and cut-throats, that in the shadow of the dark doorways of Rome's
disreputable houses, luxuriantly flourishes in the soil of a bad
conscience, is not deserving of envy; especially when, as in my case,
there is the aggravating circumstance that, in face of an entire
haughty priesthood, one has dared to consider oneself a better man, and
has shown this more or less.
Thus it was a monstrous shock for me and a most miserable cold douche
of temerity over my proud aristocrat's heart when at such a moment, my
temptress having struck a match on the wall, the brightly flickering
flame suddenly lit up the satanic visage of brother Michael, who, after
first having leered at me cautiously and a bit perplexed, broke out
into a truly devilish burst of laughter.
"Well met! Well met!" he cried out in his mother tongue, and then the
witches' words from Macbeth: "When shall we three meet again?"
I confess, dear reader, that I stood there most miserably confused and
ashamed, absolutely and utterly without self-control. But I stuttered
out something resembling a reproach and a justification:
"I, at least, wear no clerical garb."
"Neither do I," said Michael; "I am incognito on private business."
"Oh!" said I scornfully; "concerning the double book-keeping!"
"Exactly, dear ingénue!" said Michael, with his most sweetish smile.
"Concerning the double book-keeping, you have remembered it well. But
go on, don't let me disturb you! Perhaps I'll be back later."
But in my fright I had already turned about, and ran swiftly up the
street, followed by some not very flattering remarks from the woman who
had been disappointed in her pursuit. Michael overtook me.
"Two negatives constitute one positive," said he. "Two sinners together
arouse virtue. It seems to me we might as well have converted the fair
Like an instinct for self-preservation in the most desperate danger, so
man follows an instinct of self-justification in the most hopeless
"Brutes we both of us are, Michael, but I at least acknowledge it. I
loathe myself. You, tomorrow, must don your saintly garb and hide under
it your rottenness and foulness. I do not envy you."
"It does not befit us, dear Muralto, to loathe one whom God has created
after his own image. We have every one of us been saddled with a
portion of filth and it does not seem enviable to me to work that off
alone, as you. I can go to confession and belong to a large friendly
circle, where they one and all are bitten by the same fleas and must
chop with the same hatchet. We understand one another, and trust one
another and forgive one another and help one another. There are weak
brothers and strong brothers, we all of us know that, and we do not
despise one another for that reason. This seems to me a much more
desirable way of carrying your burden than as you do, who shoulder it
alone. We at least do not dissemble toward one another, but you play
the part of ingénue, not only toward the entire commonalty, but even
toward us who know quite well what to think of your pretension to moral
I felt that I should succumb to this struggle. I gave it up. With a
cool bow I parted from him and from that moment avoided all association
with younger or older members of the clergy. Though I was willing to
assume that I had not met the best soldiers of the camp, still the
honor of fighting in their ranks did not entice me. I preferred, after
all, to fight it out alone.
From this moment on my seclusion begins: I felt that Michael was right
- my pretensions were ridiculous, I had nothing by which I could claim
superiority, I was a hypocrite, I played an underhand game as well as
they whom I seemed to look down upon.
And yet - and yet - I felt that I was not understood, that my erring
was different from theirs, and that my piety had a quality lacking in
theirs. And this undestroyable consciousness of a superiority, which I
could not make prevail, of an inner life which I could not find in
anyone and could reveal to none, drove me back into total, absolute
solitude and inner separation from the human world in which I had to
This is an old story that constantly repeats itself. You know it all
too well, do you not, reader? And we are not the only ones to undergo
this process. In thousands and thousands of every generation the new
life attempts to break the old group-ideas. In most of them it is
overcome and subjected to the old. In a very few it breaks loose,
prevails for a moment, and then is annihilated in the tragic
destruction of body and soul by a death of torture, suicide, or
insanity, as an inspiring example for a few, as a disheartening warning
to many. In still others, as in you and me, dear reader, it finds a way
of maintaining itself in the hostile world, protected by a tough hide
of pretext and disguise, as the tiny seed swallowed by the birds
withstands assimilation and, thrown out, finds a way of growth.
Thus for twenty years I have wandered about like a stranger in the
world, apparently wholly subjected and belonging to it, but inwardly
totally estranged, leading an independent life of my own: all this time
inwardly struggling without rest, without peace in a battle apparently
hopeless; until, strengthened and taught by a brief period of bright,
true living, of blithe, vigorous action and nameless, deep sorrow, I
have now entered with wholly different feelings, with trust and
resignation, this last voluntary hermitage, to build with glad delight
and joyous insight upon the mansion of the future.
I told my mother that nothing would probably come of my priesthood. She
listened to it with the passive calmness which had grown customary to
her through continuous practice in forced resignation, but which did
not hide from the subtle observer the undercurrents of very ordinary
human passions and desires. I had gradually come to observe these so
plainly that the lack of self-perception in her grew constantly more
difficult for me to bear without irritation.
This time I saw that she readily abandoned the proud hope of seeing her
son a priest, for the possibility of now achieving the realization of
her favorite marriage scheme. But she intended to show only sorrow and
compassion, and shaking her head, she said:
"So your pride is not overcome, the viper's head not crushed, poor
"I am obedient to that which is most divine in me, mother."
"Your human sense, you mean? Or your human pride?"
"Mother, what other means have we for distinguishing the truth save the
sense that tells us: 'this is true!' exactly as our eye tells us: 'this
is light!' and our skin: 'this is warm!' Would you have me say: 'this
is darkness,' where I see light, or 'this is right,' where I see wrong,
only because you call it right?"
"I cannot argue with you, Vico. Do what seems right to you. I have
learned to be resigned."
"But you desire my happiness, don't you, mother?"
"Ah, dear son, I wish that people would stop seeking for their
happiness. It is all deception and vanity, a bright soap bubble. I have
never known happiness, but have learned to sacrifice all pleasure and
all joy for love of the Saviour."
"Listen a second, mother!" said I, now no longer wholly suppressing my
anger; "if you tell me that there are phantom joys and false happiness
and that we must be careful not to fling ourselves away on these, I'll
admit you are perfectly right. But if you want to make me believe that
the desire for joy and happiness, which was given to all of us, is a
devilish invention that we must not obey - then I call your world a
chaos and your life an offence. The very deepest, all-controlling basis
of our passions is that for happiness and joy, for the true, lasting,
peace-giving happiness, that we sometimes mistakenly seek in idle
pleasures. If God has created us with the intention that we should not
follow the most profound, all-controlling passion he has planted in us,
then God is a foot who has given life to cripples. Profoundly as I have
searched myself, I always find the impulse toward light, toward beauty,
toward happiness - to wish to turn me from it is to wish to destroy me.
Never will I be able to follow another guiding star, for I have none,
nor do I see one in any other person. And to none, to none on earth or
in the heavens, shall I subject myself so slavishly as to deny for him
my true, profoundest nature."
My mother carried her handkerchief to her eyes and shook her head with
a sad shrug of the shoulders, but she did not reply.
Then as a lure I dropped a word, to see whether I understood her
rightly - better than she understood herself.
"Isn't Lucia coming? We were to drive to the Pincio?"
The handkerchief dropped and her eyes sparkled a moment. "Lucia? Of
course she is coming. I did not know that you intended to go with us."
Then I knew that I had guessed right, and it was this that estranged me
from my mother, while I gave in nevertheless to her unconscious desire.
Call Holland a dreamy country because its beauty is as that of a dream.
Sometimes it is black, wildly inhospitable and dispiriting - and
suddenly, in calm, mild weather, the entire country with its trees,
canals, cities and inhabitants sparkles in an indescribable tender
radiance, enhancing everything with a deep mysterious meaning
impossible to explain or describe more fully, and resembling the
peculiar beauty of dreams. One must have seen my little city from the
sea on a still, clear September eve, when the sun goes to bide behind
the bell-tower, flooding the cloudless, luminous blue-green heavens
with orange and gold, when pastures and the shadows of trees merged in
a fairy tinted blue haze unite in wondrous harmony - when the milkers
come home with heavy tread, balancing at their sides the pails of
cobalt blue - when all that sounds is harmonious from the striking of
the clock on the tower to the rattling of a homeward driving cart, and
all that breathes from the coarse Hollanders to the dull cows seems
wrapped in this selfsame peaceful, poetic evening bliss - one must have
seen it thus to understand how much all this resembles the wondrous
illusion of our dreams, when in some inexplicable manner the simplest
object gleams with a glow of heavenly splendor and unspeakable beauty
and for days can fill our memory with the bliss of it.
But the inhabitants of this dreamy little country do not like to be
called dreamy. As I understand the word, it is a compliment better
deserved by my own countrymen; but the Hollanders themselves feel
flattered, though quite erroneously, when I casually remark at the club
that the Italians are a much dreamier people than they. To the
Hollander a dreamer is a blockhead and a dullard, and our broker, a
little fellow with gray beard and little leering cunningly-stupid eyes,
who thinks himself very smart because he knows bow to eke out a profit
everywhere and thus to swell his bank account, always states with much
satisfaction that he never knew what it was to dream. When he sleeps he
sleeps absolutely and is conscious of nothing, thus - of less even than
when he is awake. And the doctor - a fat jovial young fellow of strong
mulatto type and popular for his good-natured cordiality and stale
college jokes - says that all dreams are pathological and the best
medicine for them is a good cigar and a stiff rum punch before retiring.
A Dutch peasant in his blue blouse, on a meadow flooded by the golden
evening sun, amongst the black and white cattle, with a background of
white and pale green dunes in fine undulating outline, is a marvel of
dream beauty. But he himself knows nothing of this, as little or even
less than the cow beside him. And the broker and the doctor only
recognize it when a dreamer such as Rembrandt or Ruysdaal has revealed
it, and the papers record how many thousands of golden gilders their
reverie has yielded. But in my country the humblest peasant lad,
clambering barefooted and singing down the Piedmontese foothills behind
his black goats in the golden evening light, is enough of a dreamer to
have a clear conception of the grand concert of beauty whereof he is a
single tone. In the cities it is of course equally bad everywhere, and
dreamers are as rare among the sleek, smart officers and loungers of
the Toledo in Naples as among the portly, blond-bearded sons of the
merchants and shopkeepers in the Kalverstraat at Amsterdam.
Now it also seems to me that he who dreams is more awake than he who
sleeps, and that he who spends a third part of his life in utter
unconsciousness better deserves to be called a sleepyhead and dullard,
than he for whom the dark nights are also vivid and rich with pulsing
life. To me it has always seemed a shame to lie like a stone for so
many hours, and to arise from sleep no wiser than when we sank into it.
And after having experienced several times in my early youth that sleep
possesses riches of sensations and a wealth of rapture that surpass the
intensest joys of brilliant day, shedding behind them a radiance that
penetrates the brightest daylight as sunshine penetrates an
electrically lighted hall, - I began to pay more attention to my dreams
and, especially in dreary joyless days, to look forward to the nights
in which I had unmistakably felt the shining presence of such great
As to the doctors' opinion regarding the morbidness of dreams, I refer
again to my observations on the philistinism prevalent among
physicians, and I know from very positive experience that there are
healthy as well as morbid sensations in sleep, precisely as in the
day-life. I may speak with some authority because in my day-life I
never experienced any serious morbid disorder and no doctor could ever
cast a doubt on the excellence of my health. Yet for me a dreamless
night is a bad night, and I call the man who passes his days in the
following of perverted and inharmonious impulses, in deviations from
the good instincts for refreshment and nourishment, for propagation and
accumulation, for peace and happiness, and his nights in dull
unconsciousness and thoughtlessness, dead as a cork, or at most, a
little mad temporarily from foolish and confused dreams, - such a man
I, with good reason, call sickly and abnormal.
For our highest instinct, that like a stately royal stag, proudly
holding aloft his widely branching antlers, should take the lead of all
the wanton and timid flock of our impulses and passions uniting and
guarding them, is the impulse toward beauty, toward sublimity, and
toward purest blessedness. Even the mighty passion for knowledge, which
impels us so untiringly to seek for the secret of life, is subordinate
to this, though it is the second in rank - the most beautiful hind of
And if in our sleep and dreams we perceive, more distinctly than in the
day life, signs of the highest beauty and the purest bliss, - should we
not then give them our closest attention?
And this I would now point out to you, dear reader, as the first new
idea, strange - till now - to the present world, the first
thought-child pulsing with life and future promise, born of the
profound union of my experience and contemplation:
The solution of the secret of our lives lies in our dreams.
You think - do you not? - that this solution is not attainable to man.
Nor indeed is it - at least not to mortal man. And yet all mankind,
through the medium of its naturalists, is patiently and hopefully
seeking it. But, though they have already unearthed much that is
useful, measuring and recording and comparing with ever finer and
sharper instruments, they are still digging in a direction that
inevitably leads into a blind alley.
For the manifestations of day-life, the only ones that attract the
attention of the searchers, do not reach beyond the grave and end with
the withering of the body. But the manifestations of sleep, yet
unexplored and unmeasured, begin where the eyes are shut, the ears do
not hear, the skin does not feel, and extend into the regions
concerning which we want enlightenment as much as - yes, even more than
- concerning the sphere of day.
As long as I can remember, I have always been a great and vivid
dreamer; therefore I know I must count myself among the breakers of
suggestion, among the pathfinders, just as you too, dear reader and
sympathizer, are one of them. And therefore, also, when the ideas of
the group and traditional creed became too narrow for me and neither
the words of my great hero brothers, nor intercourse with my
contemporaries, nor the latest discoveries of science could satisfy me,
I could forthwith see an outlet and discover light on a path which no
one had yet pointed out to me and none, before me, had trod. Thus my
alienation from the world has not made me unruly. Thus alone is it
possible for me to find peace and contentment in this life amid narrow,
sordid souls and barbarians. For aside from my monotonous daily life,
with brief moments of rapture aroused by the beauty of these low lands
and the sea, by work and study, I have the rich nights full of
marvelous mystic realities which I gratefully and attentively observe
and record by day. Thus, despite the loss of all that was dear to me, I
am happy in the consciousness of being a useful laborer in the fields
of the future, ploughing.
"For the promise of a later birth
The wilderness of this Elysian earth."
Before, therefore, speaking to you of my marriage to Lucia del Bono and
the long, outwardly prosperous period following, I must acquaint you
with my nocturnal observations.
The dreams of terror and bliss, that to you too surely are not unknown,
I dreamed with vivid intensity. And it had immediately struck me that
their vehement sensations - the inexplicable, deadly, hopeless terror
and disgust or the wondrous, perfect bliss were quite disproportionate
to, and could not be explained by, the things we saw and experienced in
the dream. I remember a dream of a bare, gray room, without windows or
furniture, and moving about in a corner some indistinct object, whose
terrifying weird impression could make me shudder even by day; another
one of a small, narrow, square courtyard enclosed by high walls
overgrown with ivy, which was also gruesome and appalling beyond
description, - and then again blissful dreams of meetings with a
strange youth or maiden in some unknown garden, or in a rocky valley
with gigantic golden-leaved chestnut trees, whose memory filled me with
sweet delight for days and weeks - yes! that even now in my old age can
make me happy when I vividly recall them.
No one hearing such a dream recounted would be able to comprehend its
impressions of terror or delight. Only this was plain to we - that the
blissful dreams dealt with love. In my earliest youth it was a boy whom
I would meet in my dreams and who by a single word, without much sense,
would make me marvellously happy and the scenery around him glorious;
later it was a girl. The boy and the girl returned several times,
though not very often, and did not resemble any friend or sweetheart of
At first the weird terror seemed much more mysterious, for it was
connected in some unaccountable way with the simplest and most innocent
objects and scenes I dreamed of.
We, indeed, talk of nightmare and usually seek its cause in a poor
digestion and the doctors talk a great deal about improper circulation
and suggest all kinds of remedies. But throughout a long life I have
been a close observer and have come to the conclusion that indigestion
and improper circulation are no more the cause of this nightly terror
than of rain and wind, though a frail condition will make the one as
well as the other harder to endure. Wait, my reader, until you are as
old and experienced a dreamer as I am, and you shall see for yourself
these terror-inspirers and bloodcurdlers, these buffoons and jesters at
work in the shapes in which Breughel and Teniers portrayed them in so
life-like a manner. You shall learn to know their tricks and malicious
inventions, and the queer furnishings of their dwelling sphere. You
shall learn to track them, as it were, - as the dog tracks the game -
by their peculiar scent of gruesomeness. You shall see them unfolding
their loathsome and dark spectacles before you -their battlefields
reeking with blood, their swamps filled with corpses - besmirching your
path with mud, and playing fantastic tricks on you without its causing
you the slightest degree of alarm or fear, or depressing you as it did
before you knew the cause of all these things - because now you
apprehend them in their wretched malignity and dare to face them and,
if need be, duly to chastise them.
These are the creatures that Shelley calls
"The ghastly people of the realm of dreams,"
and of whose miserable existence and restless activity neither he, nor
Goethe, nor any other of the world's sages and seers ever doubted.
Indeed, would not this doubt signify that we are ourselves responsible
for the multitude of horrible, utterly vulgar, heinous and vile or
obscene illusions that menace us at night and yet all bear an
unmistakable imprint of thought and imagination, compiled with reason
and deliberation, and thus betray a thinking mind though a low-thinking
one? Do you not know the dream in which you know yourself to be guilty
of murder, of bloody murder through covetousness, of theft, or of
plotting to kill and inciting the innocent to it -with all the horrid
retinue of fear of discovery and lies upon lies to escape it? And do
you hold your own soul responsible for this? Or do you believe that
chance can beget such artfully contrived complexities?
It was this sort of deception that incited me to indignant defiance.
The war I had to carry on by day against my troublesome passions, also
put me on my guard at night, and I would not absolve myself with the
excuse that sleep renders irresponsible. For I knew that it was I,
myself, I, Lodovico Muralto, an honest, well-meaning fellow, who in the
dream-life of night had done and felt all kinds of malicious wicked and
low-minded things, and I would not have it.
Not only the baseness, but also the absurdities of dreams, exasperated
me. Night after night I was imposed upon and led about by the nose in
the most ridiculous fashion. It often seemed as though my most earnest
resolutions and most sacred feelings were the very ones to draw their
shafts of ridicule. And morning after morning it was not only with
surprise, but also with growing shame and wrath that I discovered on
awakening, how absurdly I had again been fooled. This could not issue
from myself, it must have been thrust on me; it was suggestion,
infusion, that menaced and confounded my mind and judgment, and I was
determined not to endure it. I would not stand it and earnestly sought
a means of defending my healthy soul and free judgment. Thus I may say
that my vehement lifelong struggle for self-purification and advance
toward salvation was doubled, being carried on by night as well as by
day, and indeed to great advantage. For it is the same soul, and they
are the same forces which by night as well as by day act and react upon
one another, and life with the physical senses of day has been made not
a little clearer to me by the nightly senseless life.
I accustomed myself to memorize carefully in the morning what had
occurred to me throughout the night, and in the evening before going to
sleep to form fixed resolutions, auto-suggestions which should continue
working also in my dream life.
And I realized that the first essentials were: observation, attention,
self-consciousness also in dreams. Who would not be cheated must be on
his guard. Thus while dreaming, I wanted above all to realize that I
was dreaming and not to lose the tie of memory connecting me with the
day-life. Every night I stood before the dark cavern of sleep, like
Theseus with Ariadne's thread in his hand, and I knew, as you perhaps
do too, reader, through chance experience - that such retention of
memory is possible. Has it not happened to you often while dreaming
that startled by some dangerous beast, or confronted by a steep
precipice, you have calmed yourself with the vague consciousness: after
all it's nothing but a dream? This consciousness I wished to cultivate
and to strengthen until it should become fixed and lasting. And after a
while, one night while dreaming of a blossoming orchard in Italy, I
succeeded in observing with thorough consciousness. I saw the branches
as they crossed one another, and the festoons of vines stretching from
tree to tree, whilst I soared through, a few yards from the ground,
with a pale blue sky above me. And while observing yet more closely I
pondered how it was possible to reproduce so exactly and minutely in a
vision obviously emanating from myself and which I had myself created,
the apparent motions of these myriad crossing twigs and the confusion
of the young foliage. And in my dream, and realizing that I was
dreaming, I came to the conclusion that this vision must be a reality,
an objective reality as the philosophers of reason would say, because
to me - the observer - it manifested a distinctly personal existence.
As I soared by, the twigs described their apparent motions exactly as I
had observed by day, and how should I, who could not even draw a tree,
be able to create these extraordinarily compiled moving images? And at
the same time, now thoroughly wide awake in the midst of what I
recognized as a deep sound sleep, I pondered upon the visionary
impressions of day-life which have been explained by the effect upon
the wonderfully constructed eye, of infinitely fine, infinitely swift
vibrations of light, which are sent out from objects whose construction
includes a no less complicated combination of billions and trillions of
molecules - and how these identical impressions with exactly the same
results were now attained, as a clearly felt and calmly observed
reality, while my eyes were shut and the world of day-life remote -
thus that there must be something which could reproduce all these
infinite combinations of light vibrations and molecular motions with an
absolutely equivalent effect.
And before having yourself tasted such delight, reader, you cannot
imagine my elation when, on awakening, I found that my attempt had met
with success, that I had gone on observing - attentively observing, and
thinking - thinking deeply and clearly, with full recollection and calm
self-consciousness in that mysterious, senseless sphere of wonder and
The philistine philosophers will talk of "delusion" and contend that
only the perceptions of day are real and those of sleep a mere
delusion. But I have said it before: there is no delusion, or -
everything is delusion. What realities does the day possess beyond
perception? And because the perceptions of sleep are more fleeting,
more unconnected, more mysterious, does it follow that they do not
exist or that they deserve no attention? Through the very strangeness
of their nature, which has no need of our senses, their study promises
richer revelations than are found in day-life, but what they primarily
demand is steadiness and clearness of the mind that would contemplate
them, with the same purpose and precision with which the realities of
day-life are searched.
My delight at this first success filled me all the day, and the comfort
and joy found in this unexplored domain of study has not forsaken me to
the present day and has helped me to bear a hard life with fortitude.
I now determined, by constant practice, to go further, to observe
longer and with still greater accuracy and also, above all, to try to
what extent I could act voluntarily in this senseless sphere. In my
first elation I hoped that I might sometime reach the point where I
could pass from waking to sleeping without loss of consciousness, and
night after night contemplate the dream-sphere with all the calmness of
day - thus doubling my entire life. Moreover, I hoped to fight the evil
and demonic, to seek the pure and heavenly and perhaps also to dig up
from the unknown world of perception, other precious facts.
Of course my exaggerated expectations met with disappointment. Only
very slowly can we gain ground in a field so wholly unknown. I must
content myself with leaving behind a series of honest and careful
observations which will be repeated and put to test by others. To you,
my reader, if the time be spared me, I will bequeath them in writing
for your perusal, well ordered as a guide for further research. I know
that you can follow the path pointed out by me and penetrate further
For the present I will only briefly mention that although my
expectations were not fulfilled in the measure hoped for, yet not any
one of them was wholly disappointed.
To retain the clearness of mind night after night throughout the entire
duration of sleep - that I never achieved. The moments of observation
were and ever continued to be of brief duration, and they came at long
intervals. Sometimes there is nothing to observe for weeks; then again
two or three good nights follow in succession. The conditions for
satisfactory observation are: excellent health, perfect equilibrium of
mind and body, and the deep refreshing sleep toward morning, when the
body and the senses are in a state of absolute passiveness and calm.
Nell' ora che comincia, i tristi lai
la rondinella presso la mattina,
- - - - - -
e che la mente nostra pellegrina
più dalla, carne e men da' pensier presa,
alle sue vision quasi è divina.
A few times only did I succeed in falling asleep with unbroken
consciousness. This occurred when I was very tired and fell quickly
into a deep sleep. Then all at once I would realize with a wonderful
sensation of joy and relief that the desired sleep had come, and I
thought, enjoyed, observed, determined and acted with calm deliberation
in the glad conviction that my body, whose weariness I no longer felt,
had found its needed refreshment without necessitating a suspension of