the coral had challenged Roberto. After discovering the extent of Nature’s capacity for invention, he felt bidden to a contest. Could he leave Ferrante in that prison, leave his own story only half-finished? Assuage his bitterness towards his rival and mortify his storyteller’s pride? No. But what could he make happen to Ferrante?
The idea came to Roberto one morning when, as usual, he had placed himself in ambush, at dawn, to catch the Orange Dove unawares. Early in the morning the sun struck his eyes, and Roberto had even tried to construct around the larger lens of his spyglass a kind of shield, using a page from the ship’s log, but at certain moments he was reduced to seeing only glints. When the sun finally did appear on the horizon, the sea mirrored it, doubling its every ray.
But that morning, Roberto was convinced he had seen something rise from the trees towards the sun, then melt into its luminous sphere. Probably it was an illusion. Any bird in that light would have seemed to glitter.... Roberto was convinced he had seen the Dove, and yet was disappointed at having lied to himself. In this contradictory mood he felt once again defrauded.
For a creature like Roberto, who by now had reached the point where he jealously enjoyed only what was stolen from him, it took little to dream that Ferrante had been given what to him was denied. But since Roberto was the author of this story and unwilling to grant Ferrante too much, he decided that the wretch would deal only with the other dove, the blue-green one. And this was because Roberto had decided, though without any certitude, that of the couple the orange must be the female, as if to say She. Since in the story of Ferrante the dove was not to represent the conclusion but, rather, the agent of possession, for the present the male fell to him.
Could a blue-green dove, which flies only over the South Seas, go and light on the sill of that window where Ferrante was pining for his freedom? Yes, in the Land of Romances. And anyway, could not the Tweede Daphne have returned only recently from these seas, more fortunate than her older sister, bearing in the hold this bird, now set free?
In any case, Ferrante, ignorant of the Antipodes, could not ask himself such questions. He saw the dove, first fed it a few bread crumbs merely to pass the time, then he wondered if it could not be used to further his own purposes. He knew that doves sometimes served to carry messages: of course, entrusting a message to that animal did not mean it would necessarily reach its destination, but in this total ennui the effort was worth making.
To whom could he appeal for help, he who out of enmity towards all, himself included, had made only enemies, and the few people who had served him were shameless, prepared to follow him only in good fortune and surely not in disaster? He said to himself: I will ask help of the Lady, who loves me
(But how can he be so sure? the envious Roberto wondered, after he invented that self-confidence).
Biscarat had left him writing materials, in the possibility that the night would bring counsel and persuade him to send a confession to the Cardinal. So on one side of the paper Ferrante wrote the address of the Lady, adding that whoever delivered the message would receive a reward. On the other side he wrote where he lay (he had heard a name spoken by his warders), victim of an infamous plot of the Cardinal, and he begged to be rescued. Then he rolled up the paper and tied it to the leg of the bird, urging it to fly off.
To tell the truth, he then forgot, or almost forgot, this action. How could he think that the azure dove would actually fly to Lilia? Such things happened only in fairy tales, and Ferrante was not a man to trust in tales. Probably the dove was shot by a hunter, to plunge among a tree’s boughs, losing the message....
Ferrante did not know that the bird instead was caught in the snare of a peasant, who thought to profit from what, judging by appearances, was a signal sent to someone, perhaps to the commander of an army.
Now this peasant took the message to be examined by the one person in his village who knew how to read, namely, the curate, who then organized everything properly. Having identified the Lady, he sent a friend to her to negotiate the delivery, deriving from it a generous offering for his church and a reward for the peasant. Lilia read, wept, sought out trusted friends for advice. Try to touch the Cardinal’s heart? Nothing easier for a beautiful woman of the court, but this woman frequented the salon of Arthenice, whom Mazarin distrusted. Satirical verses about the new minister were already circulating, and some said they came from those rooms. A precieuse who went to the Cardinal to implore mercy for a friend would be sentencing that friend to sterner punishment.
No, a band of brave men had to be assembled, who could be persuaded to mount a surprise attack. But to whom could she turn?
Now Roberto was at a loss. If he had been, say, a musketeer of the king or a cadet of Gascony, Lilia could have appealed to those men, brave, renowned for their esprit de corps. But who would risk the wrath of a minister, perhaps of the king himself, for a foreigner who spent his time among librarians and astronomers? And as for librarians and astronomers, it was best to forget them: though bent on continuing his novel, Roberto could not imagine the Canon of Digne or Monsieur Gaffarel galloping full tilt towards his prison—or, rather, the prison of Ferrante, who at this point everyone thought to be Roberto.
A few days later Roberto had an inspiration. He had set aside the story of Ferrante to continue his exploration of the coral reef. That day he was following a school of fish whose snouts bore a yellow vizor, like swirling warriors; they were about to enter a cleft between two towers of stone where the corals were the crumbling palaces of a sunken city.
Roberto imagined those fish were wandering amid the ruins of that city of Ys he had heard of, which presumably still existed not many miles off the coast of Brittany, where the waves had engulfed it. There, the largest fish was the ancient king of the city, followed by his dignitaries, and all were riding out in search of their treasure swallowed up by the sea....
But why recur to an ancient legend? Why not consider these fish the inhabitants of a world that has its forests, its peaks, its trees, and its valleys, and knows nothing of the world above the surface? Similarly, we live with no knowledge that the curved sky conceals other worlds, where people do not walk or swim but fly and navigate through the air. If what we call planets are the keels of their vessels, of which we see only the shining bottom, then these children of Neptune must see above them the shadow of our galleons and consider them heavenly bodies moving through their aqueous firmament.
And if it is possible that creatures live underwater, could not creatures also live under the earth, nations of salamanders capable of arriving, through their tunnels, at the central fire that animates the planet?
Reflecting in this way, Roberto remembered an argument of Saint-Savin’s: We think it is difficult to live on the surface of the moon, believing there is no water there, but perhaps water up there exists in subterranean hollows, and Nature has dug wells on the moon, which are the spots we see. How do we know that the inhabitants of the moon do not find refuge in those niches, to escape the intolerable proximity of the sun? Did not the first Christians live underground? And so the moon-folk live always in catacombs, which to them seem homely.
Nor is there any reason that they must live in the dark. Perhaps there are many holes in the crust of the satellite, and the interior is illuminated through thousands of slits; theirs is a night traversed by brilliant shafts, not very different from the interior of a church or the lower deck of the Daphne. Or perhaps, instead, on the surface there are phosphorescent stones that during the day soak up the sunlight, then release it at night, and the lunarians collect those stones at every sunset so that their tunnels are always more brilliant than any royal palace.
Paris, Roberto thought. Is it not a known fact that, like Rome, the whole city is underlaid with catacombs, where it is said that at night malefactors and beggars take refuge?
Beggars! Here was the idea for rescuing Ferrante! The Beggars, who, as the story goes, are governed by their own king and by a code of iron laws; the Beggars, a society of grim rabble living off thievery and misery, assassinations and extravagances, filth, villainy, and treachery, while they pretend to subsist on Christian charity!
An idea that only a woman in love could conceive, Roberto told himself. For her confidences Lilia did not approach courtiers or gentlemen of the robe, but, rather, the least of her maidservants, a woman engaged in unscrupulous traffickings with a waggoner who knew all the taverns around Notre-Dame, where at sundown the Beggars congregated after spending their day whining in doorways.... This was the path to take.
Now her guide conducts her, in the heart of the night, to the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, lifts a stone of the floor in the choir, and leads her down into the catacombs of Paris, advancing by torchlight in search of the King of the Beggars.
And this is when Lilia, disguised as a gentleman, a supple androgyne who passes through tunnels, down steps, and along low passages, where in the darkness she can discern here and there, huddled amid rags and tatters, legless bodies and faces marked with warts, pimples, erysipelas, scabs, impetigoes, boils, and cankers, all gaggling, with hand extended whether to ask for alms or to mime an invitation—with a chamberlain’s mien—”Proceed, forward, our master is expecting you.”
And there the master was, in the center of a hall a thousand leagues under the surface of the city, seated on a cask, surrounded by cutpurses, barrators, counterfeiters, and saltimbanques, a scum laureate in every abuse and corruption.
What could the King of the Beggars be like? Wrapped in a tattered cloak, his brow covered with tubercules, his nose gnawed by a tabes, his eyes of marble, one green and one black, a weasel’s gaze, brows sloping downwards, a harelip revealing wolfs teeth sharp and protruding, kinky hair, sandy skin, hands with stubby fingers and curving nails....
Having heard out the Lady, he replied that he had at his service an army compared to which the army of the French King was a provincial garrison. And far less costly: if these people were recompensed in an acceptable manner, say, twice the amount they could collect begging in the same period of time, they would have themselves killed for so generous an employer.
Lilia slipped a ruby ring from her finger (as is usual in such situations), asking with regal manner, “Is this enough?”
“Enough,” the King of the Beggars said, fondling the jewel with his vulpine gaze. “Tell us where.” And having learned where, he added: “My people do not use horses or carriages, but that place can be reached on barges, following the Seine.”
Roberto imagined Ferrante at sunset on the tower of the little fort conversing with Captain Biscarat, who suddenly saw them coming. They appeared first on the dunes, then spread out over the open field.
“Pilgrims for Santiago,” Biscarat remarked with contempt, “and of the worst sort, or the most unhappy. They go seeking health when they have one foot in the grave.”
In fact, the pilgrims, in a very long file, were advancing closer and closer to the shore, and Ferrante and Biscarat could discern a mass of blind men with extended hands, the maimed on their crutches, lepers bleared, abscessed, and scrofulous, a jumble of cripples mutilated, clad in rags.
“I would not want them to come too close, or to ask for shelter for the night,” Biscarat said. “They would bring only filth inside the walls.” And he ordered a few musket shots fired in the air, to make it clear that this little castle was not a place of hospitality.
But those shots seemed to act like a summons. As more rabble appeared in the distance, the leaders came nearer and nearer to the fortress, and already their animal mumbling could be heard.
“Keep them off, by God!” Biscarat shouted, and he had some bread thrown down at the foot of the wall, as if to say to them that such was the charity of the place’s master and they could expect nothing more. But the foul band, its ranks swelling visibly, drove its vanguard to the very walls, trampling that gift underfoot and staring upwards, as if seeking something better.
Now they could be seen one by one, and they bore no resemblance to pilgrims, or to unhappy wretches asking relief for their ailments. Beyond doubt—Biscarat said, worried— they were ragtag adventurers. Or so it seemed at least for a while, as it was now dusk, and the field and the dunes had become only a gray teeming of giant rats.
“To arms, to arms!” Biscarat cried, finally realizing that this was no pilgrimage, no alms-begging, but an assault. And he ordered shots fired at those who had already reached the wall. But, as if it was indeed a pack of rodents, more came, shoving the first, the fallen were trampled and used as a step for others pressing from behind, and now the first could be seen clinging with their nails to the clefts of that ancient fabric, digging their fingers into the cracks, setting their feet in the gaps, clutching the bars of the lowest windows, thrusting their sciatical limbs into the slits. Meanwhile another part of that crowd was swaying on the ground, heaving their shoulders against the portal.
Biscarat ordered it barricaded on the inside, but the sturdiest planks of those doors were beginning to creak under the pressure of that bastard force.
The guards continued firing, but the few attackers who fell were immediately trodden on by others of the horde; now only a seething mass was visible, from which eels of rope rose, flung into the air, and it was clear that they were iron grapples, and already some of them were hooked to the battlements. And no sooner did a guard lean out a bit to unfasten those hooked irons than the first attackers, who had hoisted themselves up, struck him with spikes and clubs, or caught him in nooses and pulled him below, where he vanished into the press of those diabolical fiends, his death-rattle drowned in their roar.
In no time, anyone following events from the dunes would have been unable to see the fort, only a teeming of flies over a corpse, a swarm of bees on a stalk, a confraternity of hornets.
Meanwhile, from below, the crash of the great door was heard as it gave way, then a tumult in the yard. Biscarat and his men rushed to the other end of the platform—no longer concerned with Ferrante, who flattened in the arch of the door that gave onto the stairs, not very frightened, for he had a presentiment that these attackers were somehow friends.
Which friends, at this point, had reached and passed the battlements. Prodigal with their lives, falling at the last rounds of musket fire, heedless of their exposed breasts, they passed the barrier of drawn swords and horrified the guards with their villainous eyes, their frenzied faces. Thus the Cardinal’s guards, otherwise men of iron, dropped their weapons, imploring mercy from Heaven against what they now believed a band from Hell, and the hellions first felled them with blows of their clubs, then flung themselves on the survivors, laying about, slapping, cuffing, smiting, thwacking, and they tore open throats with their bare teeth, quartered with their claws, they overwhelmed by spitting bile, they committed atrocities on the dead, and Ferrante saw one cut open a man’s chest, grab the heart, and devour it amid shrill cries.
The last survivor was Biscarat, who had fought like a lion. Seeing himself finally defeated, he stood with his back to a parapet, drew a line on the ground with his bloody sword, and cried: “Icy mourra Biscarat, seul de ceux qui sont avec luy!”
But at that instant a one-eyed man with a peg leg, brandishing an axe, emerged from the stairs, gave a signal, and put an end to the butchery, ordering Biscarat to be tied up. Then he saw Ferrante, recognized him by the very mask that was to have made him unrecognizable, greeted him with a broad gesture of his armed hand, as if to sweep the ground with the plume of a hat, and said, “Sir, you are free.”
He drew a message from his jerkin, with a seal Ferrante knew at once, and handed it to him.
It was she who advised him to make free use of that army, horrid but trustworthy, and to await her there, as she would arrive at dawn.
To begin with, Ferrante, once freed from his mask, released the pirates and signed a pact with them. They would regain the ship and sail under his orders, asking no questions. Their recompense: a share of a treasure as vast as a dozen Eldorados. True to his character, Ferrante had no thought of keeping his word. Once he found Roberto again, it would be enough to denounce his own crew at the first port of call, and he would have them all hanged, remaining master of the vessel.
He no longer needed the beggars, and their leader, an honorable man, told him they had received payment for this undertaking. He wished to leave the area as soon as possible. They scattered inland and returned to Paris, begging from village to village.
It was easy to board a shallop kept in the basin of the fort, reach the ship, and fling into the sea the two men who guarded it. Biscarat was chained in the hold, since he was a hostage who could be bartered advantageously. Ferrante granted himself a brief rest, returned ashore before dawn, in time to welcome a carriage from which Lilia stepped, more beautiful than ever in her male garb.
Roberto felt that he would suffer greater torment at the thought of the two greeting each other with reserve, not giving themselves away before the pirates, who believed their passenger to be a young gentleman.
They boarded ship. Ferrante made sure everything was ready to sail and, as the anchor was weighed, he went down to the chamber he had ordered to be made ready for his guest.
Here she awaited him with eyes that asked for nothing save to be loved; in the fluent exultation of her hair, now released over her shoulders, she was ready for the most joyous of sacrifices. O errant locks, locks gilded and beloved, locks unlocked that fly and play and, in playing, err—Roberto rhapsodized on Ferrante’s behalf.
Their faces were close, to reap a harvest of kisses from a past sown with sighs, and at that moment Roberto drank, in thought, at that lip of fleshy pink. Ferrante kissed Lilia, and Roberto imagined himself in that act and in the thrill of biting that true coral. But then he felt she was eluding him like a gust of wind, he lost the warmth he thought he had felt for an instant, and he saw her, icy, in a mirror, in other arms, on a distant bridal bed on another ship.
To protect the lovers he lowered a curtain of jealous transparence, for those bodies, now bared, were books of solar necromancy, whose holy accents were revealed only to the two elect, who uttered them in turn from mouth to mouth.
The ship sailed away swiftly, Ferrante its master. In him she loved Roberto, into whose heart these images fell like sparks on a bundle of dry twigs.
Monologue on the
Plurality of Worlds
we will remember, I hope—for Roberto has borrowed from the novelists of his century the habit of narrating so many stories at once that at a certain point it becomes difficult to pick up the thread—that from his first visit to the world of coral our hero brought back the stone double, which seemed to him a skull, perhaps Father Caspar’s.
Now, to forget the loves of Lilia and Ferrante, he was seated on deck at sunset, contemplating that object, examining its form.
It did not seem a skull. It was, rather, a mineral hive composed of irregular polygons, but the polygon was not the elementary unit of that object: each polygon revealed in its center a spoked symmetry of very fine threads, among which appeared—if you sharpened your eyes—cavities that perhaps formed other polygons and, if the eye could penetrate still further, it would perhaps see that the faces of those tiny polygons were made of other, still tinier, polygons, until—dividing the parts into parts of parts—the point came when they would end, having arrived at those parts not further divisible, which are the atoms. But since Roberto did not know to what degree matter could be divided, it was not clear to him how far his eyes—alas, not lynx-like, since he did not possess that lens through which Caspar had been able to identify even the animalcules of the plague—could descend into the abyss, finding new forms within the forms he perceived.
Even the head of the abbe, as Saint-Savin had shouted that night during the duel, could be a whole world for his lice— and, ah! Roberto, hearing the words again, thought of the world inhabited by those happiest of insects, the lice of Anna Maria (or Francesca) Novarese! But since lice are not atoms either but vast universes for the atoms that compose them, perhaps inside the body of the louse there are other animals still tinier who live there as in a spacious world. And perhaps my very flesh—Roberto thought—and my blood are no more than wefts of minuscule animals, that, in moving, lend me movement, allowing themselves to be conducted by my will, which serves them as coachman. And my animals are surely wondering where I am taking them now, subjecting them to an alternation of marine coolness and solar ardor, and, confounded by this turmoil of unstable climes, they are as uncertain of their destiny as I am of mine.
And what if even more minuscule animals found themselves in an equally unlimited space?
What stops me from thinking this? Only the fact that I have never learned anything about it? As my friends in Paris used to say to me, someone on the tower of Notre-Dame, looking down from that height at the Faubourg Saint-Denis, could never think that ill-defined spot was inhabited by beings similar to us. We see the planet Jove, which is very big, but from Jove they do not see us, and they cannot even conceive of our existence. And even yesterday, would I have suspected that beneath the sea—not on a remote planet or in a drop of water, but in a part of our own world—Another World existed?
And for that matter, until a few months ago, what did I know of the Austral Land? I would have said it was the fancy of heretic geographers; and perhaps—who knows?—in these islands, in times past, they burned some of their own philosophers for asserting in guttural grunts the existence of Mon-ferrato and of France. And yet now I am here, and I must perforce believe that the Antipodes exist—and that, contrary to the opinion once held by very wise men, I am not walking with my feet up and my head down. Simply, the inhabitants of this world occupy the stern of the vessel, and we occupy the prow, and, each knowing nothing of the other, we are both sailing.
The art of flying is still unknown and yet—if we can believe one Mr. Goodwin, of whom M. d’lgby told me—one day we will go to the moon as we have gone to America, even if before Columbus no one suspected that the continent existed, nor that one day it would be given that name.
Sunset gave way to evening, and evening to night. The moon was now full, and Roberto, seeing it in the sky, could make out its spots, which children and ignoramuses consider the eyes and mouth of a benevolent face.
To provoke Father Caspar (in what world, on what planet of the righteous was the dear old man now?), Roberto had once spoken to him about the inhabitants of the moon. But can the moon really be inhabited? Why not? It was as Saint-Denis said: What do the humans of this world know of what is up there?
Roberto reasoned: If, standing on the moon, I fling a stone high, will it perhaps fall on the earth? No, it will fall on the moon. So the moon, like any other planet or star, as may be, is a world that has a center of its own, and a circumference, and this center attracts all the bodies that live within the sphere of that world’s dominion. As on the earth. Then why can all the other things that happen on earth not happen also on the moon?
There is an atmosphere that enfolds the moon. On the Palm Sunday of forty years ago did not someone see, as I have been told, clouds on the moon? On that planet, in the imminence of an eclipse, is it not possible to see a great trepidation? And what is this if not proof that there is air? The planets evaporate, and so do the stars: what else are the spots that are said to be on the sun, which generate the shooting stars?
And on the moon there is surely water. How explain otherwise her spots than that they are the image of lakes (in fact, someone has suggested that these lakes are artificial, like human works, so neatly defined are they and arranged at regular distances)? Moreover, if the moon had been conceived as a great mirror serving to reflect the sun’s light onto the earth, why would the Creator have blemished that mirror with spots? Therefore the spots are not imperfections but perfections, and hence ponds, or lakes, or seas. And up there, if water exists, and air, then so does life.
A life perhaps different from ours. Perhaps that water has the flavor of (let us say) glycyrrhizin, or cardamon, or even of pepper. If there are infinite worlds, this proves the infinite ingenuity of the Engineer of our Universe, but then there is no limit to this Poet. He can have created inhabited worlds everywhere, but inhabited by ever-different creatures. Perhaps the inhabitants of the sun are sunnier, brighter, and more illuminated than are the inhabitants of the earth, who are heavy with matter, and the inhabitants of the moon lie somewhere in between. On the sun live beings who are all Form, or all Act, if you prefer, while on the earth beings are made of mere Potentials that evolve, and on the moon they are in media fluctuantes, lunatics, so to speak....
Could we live in the moon’s air? Perhaps not, it might make us dizzy; for that matter, fish cannot live in ours, nor can birds in the air of fish. The air of the moon must be purer than ours, but like ours, thanks to its density, it serves as a natural lens that filters the sun’s rays, though the Selenites see the sun quite differently. Dawn and twilight, which illuminate us when the sun has not yet come or has just left, are a gift of our air which, rich in impurities, captures and transmits its light; this is light lavished on us to excess. Yet those rays prepare us for the acquisition and the loss of the sun little by little. Perhaps on the moon, since the air is finer, their days and nights arrive all of a sudden. The sun rises abruptly on the horizon like the parting of a curtain. Then, from the most dazzling light, all plunges at once into the most bituminous darkness. And the moon would lack the rainbow, an effect of vapors mixed with air. But perhaps for the same reason they have neither rain nor thunder and lightning.
And the inhabitants of the planets closer to the sun, what can they be like? Fiery as Moors, but much more spiritual than we. How big will the sun be for them? How do they tolerate its light? Up there, do metals melt in nature and flow like rivers:
But are there really infinite worlds? A question of this sort provoked a duel in Paris. The Canon of Digne said he did not know the answer. Or, rather, the study of physics would lead him to say yes, in accord with the great Epicurus. The world can only be infinite. Atoms crowd into the Void. That bodies exist is borne out by sensation. That the Void exists is borne out by reason. How and where could the atoms move otherwise? If there were no Void, there would be no motion, unless bodies penetrate one another. It would be ridiculous to think that when a fly presses a particle of air with its wing, that particle shifts another below it, and that yet another, so that the scratching of a flea’s leg, from movement to movement, would finally produce a lump at the far end of the world!
On the other hand, if the Void were infinite and the number of atoms finite, they would never cease moving on all sides, they would never jostle one another (as two people would never meet, if not through inconceivable coincidence, wandering through an endless desert), and so they would not produce their composites. And if the Void were finite and bodies infinite, there would not be room to contain them.
Naturally, it would suffice to imagine a Void inhabited by atoms in a finite number. The Canon told me this is the more prudent opinion. Why obligate God like some theatrical manager to produce infinite performances? He manifests His freedom eternally through the creation and maintainence of a single world. There are no arguments against the plurality of worlds, but there are also none in its favor. God, who was before the world, has created a sufficient number of atoms, in a space sufficiently wide, to compose His masterpiece. A part of His infinite perfection is also the Genius of Limitation.
To see if and how many worlds there were in a dead thing, Roberto went into the little museum on the Daphne, and he lined up on the bridge, as if he had before him so many astragals, all the dead objects he found there: fossils, pebbles, fish bones; he shifted his eyes from one to the other, continuing to reflect on Chance and chances.
But how do I know (he asked himself) that God tends to limitation, when my experience constantly reveals to me other, new worlds, whether up above or down below? It could then be that not God but the world is eternal and infinite and has always been so and ever shall be, in an infinite recompo-sition of its infinite atoms in an infinite void, according to laws I do not know yet, through unpredictable but regulated shifts of the atoms, which otherwise would move wildly. And then the world would be God. God would be born of eternity as Universe without shores, and I would be subject to its law, without knowing what that law was.
Fool, some say: you can speak of the infinity of God because you are not called upon to conceive it with your mind, but only to believe in it as one believes in a Mystery. But if you want to speak of natural philosophy, you must also conceive this infinite world, and you cannot.
Perhaps. But let us think, then, that the world is both full and finite. And let us try to conceive the Nothingness that comes after the world has ended. When we think of that Nothingness, can we perhaps picture it as a wind? No, because it would have to be truly nothing, not even wind. In terms of natural philosophy—not of faith—is an interminable nothing conceivable? It is much easier to imagine horned men or two-tailed fish through composition of parts already known: we can only add to the world, where we believe it ends, more parts similar to those we already know (an expanse made again and always of water and land, stars and skies). Without limit.
But if the world were finite, Nothingness, inasmuch as it is nothing, could not be, and what then would lie beyond the confines of the world? The Void. And so, to deny the infinite we affirm the Void, which can only be infinite, otherwise at its end we would have to think again of a new and inconceivable expanse of nothing. Thus it is better to think at once and freely of the Void and people it with atoms, reserving the right to think of it as empty, emptier than any emptiness.
Roberto discovered he was enjoying a great privilege, which gave a meaning to his defeat. Here he was holding the clear proof of the existence of other skies, but at the same time without having to ascend beyond the celestial spheres, for he intuited many worlds in a piece of coral. Was there any need to calculate the number of forms which the atoms of the Universe could create—burning at the stake all those who said their number was not finite—when it sufficed to meditate for years on one of these marine objects to realize how the deviation of a single atom, whether willed by God or prompted by Chance, could generate inconceivable Milky Ways?
The Redemption? A false argument, indeed—Roberto protested, to avoid trouble with the next Jesuit he might meet— the argument of those who cannot conceive the Lord’s omnipotence. Who can deny the possibility that in the great plan of Creation, Original Sin was realized at the same time on all worlds, in different and unheard-of ways yet all equally, so that Christ died on the Cross for all, including the Selenites and the Syrians and the Coralines who lived on the molecules of this tunneled rock when it was still living?
To tell the truth, Roberto was not entirely convinced by his own arguments; he was composing a dish that had too many ingredients, or, rather, he was cramming into a single argument things heard in various places—and he was not so ingenuous that he did not realize as much. So, having defeated one possible adversary, he restored speech to him and identified himself with the opponent’s rebuttal.
Once, in speaking of the Void, Father Caspar had silenced him with a syllogism which Roberto could not answer: the Void is not being, but not being cannot be, ergo the Void cannot be. The reasoning was sound, because it denied the Void while granting that it could be conceived. In fact, we can quite easily conceive things that do not exist. Can a chimera, buzzing in the Void, devour second intentions? No, because chimeras do not exist, in the Void no buzzing can be heard, and intentions are mental things—an intended pear does not nourish us. And yet I can think of a chimera even if it is chimerical, namely, if it is not. And the same with the Void.
Roberto recalled the reply of a nineteen-year-old youth who one day in Paris had been invited to a gathering of his philosopher friends because he was said to be designing a machine capable of arithmetical calculations. Roberto had not clearly understood how the machine was supposed to work, and he had considered the boy (perhaps out of acrimony) too wan, too sad, and too pedantic for his age, whereas Roberto’s libertine friends were teaching him that you could be learned in a playful fashion. And Roberto had tolerated it still less when, as they were discussing the Void, the boy insisted on speaking, even with a certain impudence: “There has been too much talk of the Void. Now it must be demonstrated through experiment.” And he said this as if that task would one day fall to him.
Roberto asked what experiment he had in mind, and the boy replied that he did not yet know. To embarrass him, Roberto listed all the philosophical objections he could think of: If the Void existed, it would not be matter (which is full), nor would it be spirit, for we cannot conceive a spirit that is void, nor would it be God, because it would lack even its self, it would be neither substance nor accident, it would shed its light without being hyaline.... What, then, would it be?
The boy replied with humble boldness, his eyes lowered: “Perhaps it would be something halfway between matter and nothingness, and would partake of neither. It would differ from nothingness because of its dimension, and from matter because of its immobility. It would be almost a not-being. Not supposition, not abstraction. It would be. It would be—how shall I say it?—a fact. Pure and simple.”
“What is a fact pure and simple, lacking any determination?” Roberto asked with scholastic arrogance. Though he had no opinions on the subject, he, too, wanted to talk pedantically.
“I am unable to define what is pure and simple,” the youth answered. “For that matter, sir, how can you define being? To define it, it would be necessary to say that it is something. Thus to define being you would first have to say is and therefore use in the definition the term being defined. I believe there are terms impossible to define, and perhaps the Void is one of them. But I may be mistaken.”
“You are not mistaken. The Void is like time,” one of Roberto’s libertine friends commented. “Time is not the quantity of movement, because movement depends on time and not vice versa; it is infinite, increate, continuous, it is not an accident of space.... Time is, and that is that. And the Void is. And that is also that.”
Some protested, saying a thing that is and that is that, without having a definable essence, might just as well not be. “Gentlemen,” the Canon of Digne then said, “it is true, space and time are neither body nor spirit, they are immaterial, if you like, but this does not mean they are not real. They are not accident and they are not substance, and yet they came before Creation, before any substance and any accident, and they will exist also after the destruction of every substance. They are immutable and invariable, whatever you may put inside them.”
“But,” Roberto objected, “space also extends, and extension is a property of bodies....”
“No,” the libertine friend rebutted, “the fact that all bodies extend does not mean that everything extended is a body— as a certain gentleman would have it, who moreover would not deign to reply to me, because it seems he no longer wants to return from Holland. Extension is the disposition of all that is. Space is absolute extension, eternal, infinite, increate, illimitable, uncircumscribed. Like time, it has no end, is inaccessible, impossible to disperse, it is an Arabian phoenix, a serpent biting its tail....”
“Sir,” the Canon said, “let us not put space in God’s stead....”
“Sir,” the libertine replied, “you cannot present to us ideas that all of us consider true, then demand that we not draw from them the ultimate consequences. I suspect that at this point we no longer need God or His infinity, because we already have enough infinities on all sides reducing us to a shadow that lasts only an instant without return. So, then, I propose banishing all fear, and going—in a body—to the tavern.”
Shaking his head, the Canon took his leave. And so did the youth, who seemed quite troubled by this talk; head bowed, he excused himself and said he had to return to his house.
“Poor boy,” the libertine then said, “he builds machines to count the finite, and we have terrified him with the eternal silence of too many infinities. Voila, the end of a fine vocation.”
“He will not recover from the blow,” another of the Pyr-rhonians said. “He will try to make peace with the world, and he will end up among the Jesuits.”
Roberto thought now of that dialogue. The Void and space were like time, or time was like the Void and space. Sidereal spaces exist where our earth appears like an ant, and so do spaces such as the world of corals, the ants of our Universe— and all these spaces are one inside the other.... Was it therefore unthinkable that there could be worlds subject to different times? Has it not been said that on Jove one day lasts a year? Therefore worlds must exist that live and die in the space of an instant, or survive beyond our ability to calculate both the Chinese dynasties and the date of the Flood. Worlds where all movements and the response to those movements do not occupy the time of hours and minutes but of millennia.
Did there not exist—and close at hand—a place where the time was yesterday?
Perhaps he had already entered one of those worlds where, once an atom of water had begun corroding the shell of a dead coral, now crumbled and scattered by the many years that had passed, as many as those from the birth of Adam to the Redemption. And was he not living his own love in this time, where Lilia, like the Orange Dove, had become something for whose conquest he now had at his disposal the tedium of centuries? Was he not preparing to live in an infinite future?
Towards many similar reflections a young gentleman who had only recently discovered those corals felt himself driven.... And there is no knowing where he would have arrived if he had had the spirit of a true philosopher. But Roberto was not a philosopher; instead he was an unhappy lover barely emerging from a venture, all things considered, not crowned with success: towards an Island that eluded him in the icy brumes of the day before.
He was, however, a lover who though educated in Paris had not forgotten his country life. Therefore he came to conclude that the time he was thinking about could be stretched in a thousand ways like dough made with egg yolks, as he had seen the women at La Griva knead it. I do not know why Roberto hit upon this simile—perhaps too much thinking had whetted his appetite, or perhaps, terrified by the eternal silence of all those infinities, he would have liked to be home again in the maternal kitchen. He soon went on to recall other rustic delicacies.
There were the pies stuffed with little birds, hares, and pheasants, as if to affirm that there can be many worlds, one next to the other or a world within a world. But his mother also made those cakes known as “German-style,” with seven layers or stripes of fruit partitioned with butter, sugar, and cinnamon. And from that idea he went on to envision a salted cake, where amid various strata of pastry he put first one of ham, then one of sliced hard-boiled egg, then one of green vegetable. And this led Roberto to think that the Universe could be a pan in which different stories were cooking at the same time, each at its own rate but perhaps all with the same characters. And as the eggs that are below in a pie have no notion of what is happening, beyond their layer of pastry, to their fellow eggs or to the ham above them, so in one stratum of the Universe one Roberto could not know what the other was doing.
Granted, this is not a refined way of reasoning, and with the belly, moreover. But it is obvious he already had in mind the point at which he wanted to arrive: In a single moment many different Robertos could be doing different things, perhaps under different names.
Perhaps under the name of Ferrante? In that case, could the story he believed he was inventing about an enemy brother not be the obscure perception of a world where to him, Roberto, other vicissitudes were occurring, different from those he was experiencing in this world and at this time?
Come now, he said to himself, of course you would have liked to be the one experiencing what Ferrante experienced when the Tweede Daphne unfurled her sails to the wind. But this we know because, as Saint-Savin said, there exist thoughts we do not think about at all, though they make an impression on the heart without the heart (still less the mind) becoming aware; and it is inevitable that some of these thoughts—which at times are nothing but obscure desires, and not even all that obscure—should be introduced into the universe of the Romance that you think you are conceiving for the pleasure of portraying the thoughts of others... But I am I, and Ferrante is Ferrante, and now I will prove it, having him experience adventures of which I could not be the protagonist—and which, if they take place in any universe, it is that of Imagination, parallel to none other.
And he took pleasure, all that night long, heedless of the corals, in conceiving an adventure that, however, would lead him once again to the most lacerated delight, the most exquisite suffering.