but how long had he been sick? Days? Weeks? Or had a storm in the meantime struck the ship? Or, even before encountering the Stone Fish, concentrated as he was on the sea and on his Romance, had he not noticed what was happening around him? For how long had he so lost his sense of reality?
The Daphne had become a different ship. The deck was dirty and the casks leaked, were coming apart; some sails had unfurled and were torn, hanging from the arms like masks, winking and grinning among their rents.
The birds complained, and Roberto hurried to feed them. Some were dead. Luckily the plants, nourished by rain and air, had grown and some had forced their way into the cages, offering pasture to many; for others, the insects had multiplied. The surviving animals had even procreated, and the few dead had been replaced by many living.
The Island remained unchanged; except that for Roberto, who had lost his mask, it had moved farther away, drawn by the currents. The reef, now that he knew it was defended by the Stone Fish, had become insuperable. Roberto could swim again, but only for the love of swimming, while keeping well away from the rocks.
“Oh, human machinations, how chimerical you are,” he murmured. “If man is nothing but a shadow, you are smoke. If nothing but a dream, you are phantoms. If nothing but a dot, you are zeroes.”
So many deeds, Roberto said to himself, only to learn that I am a zero. Indeed, more of a zero than I was at my arrival as derelict. The shipwreck shook me and led me to fight for life, but now I have nothing to fight for or to fight against. I am condemned to a long repose. I am here to contemplate not the Void of spaces, but my own: and from it only ennui will come, sadness, and despair.
Soon not only I but the Daphne itself will be no more, I and it reduced to fossil, like this coral.
For the coral skull was still there on the deck, immune to universal wear; and so, immune to death, it was the only living thing.
This alien form gave new vigor to the thoughts of the castaway, who had been educated to discover new lands only through the telescope of the word. If the coral was a living thing, he said to himself, it was the only truly thinking being amid the general disorder of thought. It could think only of its own ordered complexity, about which it knew everything, and thus would have no expectation of unforeseen disruptions of its own architecture.
Do objects live and think? The Canon had said to him one day that to justify life and its development it is necessary that in every thing there be some burgeoning of matter, some spora, some seeds. Molecules are determined arrangements of determined atoms under a determined form, and if God has imposed laws on the chaos of atoms, their composites can tend only to generate analogous composites. Is it possible that the stones we know are still those that survived the Flood, that they, too, have not developed, and that from them other stones have not been generated?
If the Universe is nothing but a collection of simple atoms that clash to generate their composites, it is not possible that the atoms, once composed into their composites, should cease moving. In every object a continuous movement must be maintained: a whirling movement in winds, a fluid and regulated movement in animal bodies, a slow but inexorable movement in vegetables, and surely much slower but not absent in minerals. Even this coral, dead to coraline life, enjoys its own subterranean stirring, proper to a stone.
Roberto reflected. Let us assume that every body is composed of atoms, even those bodies purely and solely extended, flat, with which Geometricians deal; and let us assume, further, that these atoms are indivisible. It is certain that every straight line can be divided into two equal parts, whatever its length may be. But if its length is minimal, it is possible that we may be dividing into two parts a straight line composed of an odd number of indivisibles. This would mean that if we do not want the two parts to be unequal, the indivisible median has been divided in two. But this, since it is in its turn extended and therefore also a straight line, though of imperceptible brevity, should be in its turn divisible into two parts. And so on ad infmitum.
The Canon said that the atom is still always made up of parts, only it is so compact that we could never divide it within its confines. We. But what about others?
No solid body exists as compact as gold, and yet we take an ounce of this metal, and from that ounce a goldsmith can make a thousand gold leaves, and one half of those leaves suffices to gild the entire surface of an ingot of silver. And taking that same ounce of gold, those who prepare the gold and silver filaments for decorating lace can reduce it with their die to the breadth of a hair, and that thread will be as long as a quarter-league or perhaps more. The artisan stops at a certain point because he does not possess adequate instruments, nor can he with the naked eye still discern the thread he might obtain. But some insects—so minuscule that we cannot see them, and so industrious and wise that their skill outstrips that of all the artisans of our species—could refine that thread still further, until it stretched from Turin to Paris. And if there existed insects of those insects, to what refinement could they not draw that same thread?
If with the eye of Argus I could penetrate the polygons of this coral and the filaments that spread inside it, and inside each filament that which makes up the filament, I could go seeking the atom unto infinity. But an atom divisible to infinity, producing parts ever smaller and ever more divisible, would lead me to a moment where matter would be nothing but infinite divisibility, and all its hardness and its fullness would be sustained by this simple balancing among voids. Matter, rather than feeling a horror of the Void, would then worship it, and would be composed of it, would be void-in-itself, absolute vacuity. Absolute vacuity would be at the very heart of the unthinkable geometrical point, and this point would be only the island of Utopia we dream of, in an ocean made always and only of water.
Hypothesizing a material extension made of atoms, then, we arrive at having no atoms. What remains? Vortices. Except that the vortices would not pull the suns and planets, true matter that feels the influence of their wind, because the suns and planets would themselves be vortices, drawing minor vortices into their spiral. Then the maximum vortex, which makes the galaxies spin, would have in its center other vortices, and these would be vortices of vortices, whirlpools made of other whirlpools, and the abyss of the great whirlpool of whirlpools would sink into the infinite, supported by Nothingness.
And we, inhabitants of the great coral of the Cosmos, believe the atom (which still we cannot see) to be full matter, whereas, it too, like everything else, is but an embroidery of voids in the Void, and we give the name of being, dense and even eternal, to that dance of inconsistencies, that infinite extension that is identified with absolute Nothingness and that spins from its own non-being the illusion of everything.
So here I am illuding myself with the illusion of an illusion—I, an illusion myself? I, who was to lose everything, happened on this vessel lost in the Antipodes only to realize that there was nothing to lose? But, understanding this, do I not perhaps gain everything, because I become the one thinking point at which the Universe recognizes its own illusion?
And yet, if I think about it, does this not mean I have a soul? Oh, what a tangle. The all is made of nothing, and yet to understand it we must have a soul, which, little as it may be, is not nothing.
What am I? If I say / in the sense of Roberto della Griva, I say so inasmuch as I am the memory of all my past moments, the sum of everything I remember. If I say / in the sense of that something that is here at this moment and is not the mainmast or the coral, then I am the sum of what I feel now. But what is what I feel now? It is the sum of those relations between presumed indivisibles that have been arranged in that system of relations in that special order that is my body.
And so my soul is not, as Epicurus would have it, a matter composed of corpuscles finer than the others, a breath mixed with heat; it is the way in which these relations are felt as such.
What tenuous condensation, what condensed tenuousness! I am only a relation among my parts that are perceived while they are in relation to each other. But these parts are in turn divisible into other relations (and so on), therefore every system of relations, being aware of itself, being indeed the awareness of self, is a thinking nucleus. I think me, my blood, my nerves; but every drop of my blood thinks itself.
Does it think itself as I think me? Surely not, in Nature man perceives himself in quite a complex way, the animal a bit less (it is capable of appetite, for example, but not of remorse), and a plant feels itself growing, and surely it feels when it is cut, and perhaps even says /, but in a far more cloudy way than I do. Every thing thinks, but according to its complexity.
If this is so, then stones also think. This stone, too, which actually is not stone but was a vegetable (or animal?). How does it think? Like a stone. If God, who is the great relation of all relations in all the universes, thinks Himself thinking, as the Philosopher would have it, this stone thinks only itself stoning. God thinks entire reality and the infinite worlds He creates and maintains with His thought; I think of my unhappy love, of my solitude on this ship, of my deceased parents, of my sins and of my death; and this stone thinks only I stone, I stone, I stone. But perhaps it cannot even say I. It thinks: Stone, stone, stone.
That must be boring. Or am only I the one who feels bored? I who can think more, while it (or he or she) is entirely content with being stone, as happy as God—because God enjoys being All, as this stone enjoys being almost nothing, but since it knows no other way of being, it is pleased with its own way, eternally satisfied with itself....
But is it true, then, that the stone feels nothing but its stoniness? The Canon used to say to me that even stones are bodies that on some occasions burn and become other. In fact, a stone falls into a volcano and through the intense heat of that unguent of fire, which the ancients called Magma, it melts and fuses with other stones, becomes one incandescent mass, and a short (or long) time later it finds itself part of a larger stone. Is it possible that in ceasing to be that first stone, and at the moment of becoming another, it does not feel its own calefaction, and with it the imminence of its own death?
The sun was striking the bridge, a light breeze tempered its heat, Roberto’s sweat dried on his skin. After all this time spent picturing himself as stone petrified by the sweet Medusa who had ensnared him in her gaze, he resolved to try to think as stones think, perhaps to prepare himself for the day when he would be a simple pile of white bones exposed to that same sun, that same wind.
He stripped, lay down, with his eyes closed and his fingers in his ears so as not to be disturbed by any sound, as is surely the case of a stone, which has no sensory organs. He tried to erase every personal memory, every demand of his own human body. If it had been possible, he would have erased his own skin; unable to, he tried to make it as insensitive as he could.
I am a stone, I am a stone, he said to himself. And then, to avoid even mentioning himself: Stone, stone, stone.
What would I feel if I were truly a stone? First of all, the movements of the atoms that compose me, that is, the stable vibration of the positions that the parts of my parts of my parts maintain among themselves. I would feel the hum of my stoning. But I could not say /, because to say I there must be others, something else against which to oppose myself. In principle the stone cannot know if there is anything outside itself. It hums. Its stoning is a stoning of stoning. Of the rest it knows nothing. It is a world. A world that worlds along on its own.
Still, if I touch this coral, I feel that the surface has retained the sun’s warmth on the exposed part, whereas the part that rested on the deck is colder; and if I were to split it in half, I could perhaps feel how the heat decreases from the top to the bottom. Now, in a warm body the atoms move more furiously, and therefore this rock, if it feels movement, cannot help but feel in its interior a differentiation of movements. If it were to remain eternally exposed to the sun in the same position, perhaps it would begin to distinguish something like an above and a below, if merely as two different types of motion. Unaware that the cause of this difference is an external agent, it would conceive itself in that way, as if that motion were its nature. But if there was an avalanche and the stone rolled downhill and ended in another position, it would feel that other parts of itself were moving, parts formerly slow, whereas those formerly fast would be moving at a slower pace. And as the terrain slid (and it could be a very slow process), the stone would feel that the heat, or, rather, the motion consequent to it, was passing gradually from one part of it to another.
Thinking like this, Roberto slowly exposed different sides of his body to the sun’s rays, rolling across the deck until he came to a patch of shadow, darkening slightly in it, as would have happened to the stone.
Who knows? he asked himself. Perhaps in these motions the stone begins to have, if not the concept of place, at least the notion of part: certainly, of change. Not of passion, however, because the stone does not know its opposite, which is action. Or perhaps it does. For the fact of being stone, so composed, is something it feels constantly, whereas its being hot here or cold there is felt alternately. So in some way it is capable of distinguishing itself, as substance, from its own accidents. Or not. Because it feels itself as relation, it would feel itself as relation among different accidents. It would feel itself as substance in evolution. What does that mean? Do I feel myself in a different way? Who knows if stones think like Aristotle or like the Canon? All this in any case would take it millennia, but that is not the problem: it is whether the stone can store up successive perceptions of itself. Because if it feels itself now hot above and cold below, and now vice versa, but in the second condition it does not remember the first, then it will believe always that its interior movement is the same.
But why, if it perceives itself, should it not have memory? Memory is a power of the soul, and however small the soul of the stone, it will have a proportionate memory.
To have memory means to have a notion of before and after, otherwise I would also believe always that the suffering or the joy I remember are present at the moment I remember them. Instead I know they are past perceptions, because they are fainter than the present ones. The problem therefore is having a sense of time. Which perhaps not even I could have if time were something that is learned. But did I not say to myself days or months ago, before my sickness, that time is the condition of movement and not the result? If the parts of the stone are in motion, this motion will have a rhythm that even if inaudible will be like the sound of a clock. The stone is the clock of itself. Feeling oneself in motion means feeling one’s own time beating. The earth, great stone in the sky, feels the time of its motion, the time of the respiration of its tides, and what it feels I see drawn on the starry vault: the earth feels the same time that I see.
So the stone knows time, indeed it knows it before perceiving its own changes of temperature as movement in space. As far as I know, it does not even need to sense that the change of temperature depends on its position in space: it could understand this as a phenomenon of change in time, like the passage from sleep to waking, from vigor to weariness, just as I realize now that, lying still, my left foot is growing numb.
No, the stone must also feel space, if it senses motion where formerly there was stillness and stillness where formerly there was motion. It knows, then, how to think here and there.
But let us now imagine that someone picks up this stone and sets it among other stones to build a wall. If, before, it sensed the play of its own internal positions, it was because it felt its own atoms bent in the effort to compose themselves like the cells in a beehive, crammed one against the other and one among others, as the stones in the dome of a church should feel, where one presses the other and all press towards the central keystone, and the stones near the keystone press the others downwards and outwards.
But accustomed to that play of thrusts and counterthrusts, the whole dome must feel itself as such, in the invisible movement its bricks make, thrusting one another reciprocally; similarly, it should feel the effort that someone makes to demolish it, and should understand that it ceases to be dome at the moment the wall below and its buttresses collapse.
The stone, then, pressed among other stones to such a degree that it is on the verge of breaking (and if the pressure were greater, it would crack), must feel this constriction, a constriction it did not feel before, a pressure that somehow must influence its own inner movement. Will not this be the moment when the stone senses the presence of something external to itself? The stone would then have perception of the World. Or perhaps it would think that the force oppressing it is something stronger than itself, and it would identify the World with God.
But on the day the wall collapses, ending the constriction, would the stone feel a sense of Freedom—as I would feel if I decided to emerge from the constriction I have imposed on myself? But I can wish to stop being in my condition; the stone cannot. Therefore freedom is a passion, whereas the will to be free is an action, and this is the difference between me and the stone. I can will. The stone at most (and why not?) can only tend to return as it was before the wall, and feel pleasure when it becomes again free, but it cannot decide to act in order to achieve what gives it pleasure.
But can I really will anything? At this moment I feel the pleasure of being stone, the sun warms me, the wind makes acceptable this adjustment of my body, I have no intention of ceasing to be a stone. Why? Because I like it. So then I too am slave to a passion, which advises me against wanting freely its opposite. However, willing, I could will. And yet I do not. How much freer am I than a stone?
There is no thought more terrible, especially for a philosopher, than that of free will. Out of philosophical pusillanimity, Roberto dismissed it as a thought too grave—for him, surely, and all the more for a stone to which he had given passions but had deprived of any possibility of action. In any case the stone, even without being able to ask itself questions about the possibility or impossibility of damning oneself wilfully, had already acquired many and very noble faculties, more than human beings had ever attributed to it.
Roberto now asked himself if, at the moment when it fell into the volcano, the stone was aware of its own death. Surely not, because it had never known what dying meant. But when it disappeared completely into the magma, could it have had a notion of its death as a thing that happened? No, because that composed, individual stone no loner existed. On the other hand, have we ever known of a man aware of having died? If something was thinking itself, it would now be the magma: I magma, I magma, I magma, shlup shlup shlup, I flow, fluid, plop plop splupp, I bubble bub bub, I sizzle, spittle, spatter, patter, platter. Flap. And Roberto, imagining himself magma, spat like a hydrophobe dog and tried to make his viscera grumble. He almost had a bowel movement. He was not made to be magma, better return to thinking like a stone.
But what did it matter to the ex-stone that the magma was magmizing its magmating self? For stones there is no life after death. There is none for anyone to whom it has been promised and granted, after death, to become a plant or animal. What would happen if I died and all my atoms were recomposed, after my flesh was well distributed in the earth and filtered through roots, into the lovely shape of a palm tree? Would I say / palm? The palm would say it, no less thinking than a stone. But when the palm says I, will it mean / Roberta? It would be wrong to deprive it of the right to say I palm. For what sort of palm would it be if it said / Roberto am palm? That composite able to say I Roberto, because it perceived itself as that composite, is no longer. And if it is no longer, having lost that perception, it has lost also the memory of itself. It cannot even say I palm was Roberto. For if such memory were possible, I should now know that I Roberto was at one time... what? Something. But I have absolutely no such memory. What I was before, I no longer know, just as I am incapable of remembering that foetus I was in my mother’s womb. I know I was a foetus because others have told me so, but as far as I am concerned, I might never have been it.
My God, I could enjoy the soul, and even the stones could enjoy it, and precisely from the soul of stones I learn that my soul will not survive my body. Why am I thinking and playing at being a stone, when afterwards I will know nothing further of myself?
But in the final analysis, what is this I that I believe thinks me? Have I not said that it is only the awareness that the Void, identical to extension, has of itself in this particular composite?
Therefore I am not I who thinks, but I am the Void, or extension, that thinks me. And so this composite is an accident, in which Void and extension linger for the blink of an eye, to be able afterwards to return to thinking otherwise. In this great Void of the Void, the one thing that truly is, is the history of this evolution in numberless transitory compositions.... Compositions of what? Of the one great Nothingness, which is the Substance of the whole.
Substance governed by a majestic necessity, which leads it to create and destroy worlds, to weave our pale lives. I must accept this, succeed in loving this Necessity, return to it, and bow to its future will, for this is the condition of Happiness. Only by accepting its law will I find my freedom. To flow back into It will be Salvation, fleeing from passions into the sole passion, the Intellectual Love of God.
If I truly succeeded in understanding this, I would be the one man who has found the True Philosophy, and I would know everything about the God that is hidden. But who would have the heart to go about the world and proclaim such a philosophy? This is the secret I will carry with me to my grave, in the Antipodes.
As I have said before, Roberto did not have the makings of a philosopher. Having achieved this Epiphany, which he polished with the severity of an optician grinding a lens, he experienced—once more—an amorous apostasy. Since stones do not love, he sat up, again a loving man.
But then, he said to himself, if to the great sea of the great and sole Substance we must all return, down below or up above, or wherever it is, I will be united, identical, with my Lady! We will both be part and all of the same macrocosm ... I will be she, she will be I. Is this not the deepest meaning of the myth of the Hermaphrodite? Lilia and I, one body and one thought...
But have I not foretold this event? For days (weeks, months?) I have been making her live in a world that is all mine, even if through Ferrante. She is already thought of my thought.
Perhaps conceiving Romances means living through our own characters, making them live in our world, and delivering ourselves and our creatures to the minds of those to come, even when we will no longer be able to say I...
But if this is so, it is up to me alone to banish Ferrante from my own world, forever, to have his banishment governed by divine justice, and to create the conditions whereby I can be united with Lilia.
Filled with renewed enthusiasm, Roberto decided to conceive the last chapter of his story.
roberto told himself how Ferrante, wandering from island to island and seeking more his pleasure than the correct course, refused to be instructed by the warnings evident in the signals the eunuch sent to Biscarat’s wound, and finally he lost all notion of where he was.
The ship meanwhile sailed on, the inadequate provisions spoiled, the water began to stink. To keep the crew in ignorance, Ferrante decreed that each man go below only once a day to the hold and in the darkness take the minimum supplies required for survival, and no one was to look around there.
Lilia realized nothing, for she bore every torment with serenity and seemed to thrive on a drop of water and a crumb of biscuit, anxious for her beloved to succeed in his enterprise. As for Ferrante, insensitive to that love except for the pleasure he drew from it, he went on inciting his mariners, flashing images of wealth before the eyes of their greed. And so a blind man blinded by rancor led other blind men blinded by avidity, holding prisoner in his fetters a blind beauty.
Still, many of the crew, in their great thirst, felt their gums begin to swell and cover their teeth; their legs became spotted with abscesses, and their pestilential secretion rose even to their vital parts.
So it was that, sailing below the twenty-fifth degree of latitude south, Ferrante had to face a mutiny. He quelled it, relying on a group of five corsairs, the most faithful (Andra-pod, Boride, Ordogne, Safar, and Asprando), and the mutineers were set adrift in the sloop with a few victuals. But in so doing, the Tweede Daphne had deprived itself of a means of rescue. What does that matter, Ferrante said, soon we will be in the place to which we are lured by our cursed hunger for gold. But the men remaining were too few to sail the ship.
Nor did they wish to; having lent a hand to their chief, they now considered themselves his equals. One of the five had spied on that mysterious young gentleman who came up on deck so rarely, and discovered he was a woman. Then those cut-throats confronted Ferrante, demanding the passenger. Ferrante, Adonis of aspect but Vulcan at heart, set more store by Pluto than by Venus, and it was fortunate Lilia did not hear him when in a murmur he assured the mutinous five that he would reach an agreement with them.
Roberto could not permit Ferrante to carry out this final villainy. He then chose to have Neptune become enraged that mortals had traversed his domain without fear of his wrath. Or else, rather than put the story in such pagan as well as fanciful terms, he imagined it was impossible (if a Romance must also convey a moral lesson) that Heaven would not punish that vessel of perfidies. And he rejoiced imagining that the Austral Winds, with Boreas and Eurus, staunch enemies of the calm of the sea—even if till now they had left to the placid Zephyrs the responsibility of following the path along which the Tweede Daphne continued her voyage—were beginning to show signs of impatience in the confinement of their subterranean chambers.
He made them burst forth all at once. The groan of the timbers covered the ground bass of the sailors’ lamentations, the sea vomited upon them and they vomited into the sea, and sometimes a wave so enfolded them that from the shore one might have mistaken that deck for a coffin of ice, around which the thunderbolts flared like wax tapers.
At first the storm set clouds against clouds, waters against waters, winds against winds. But soon the sea abandoned its prescribed limits and grew, swelling, towards the sky, and rain came pouring down, the water mixed with the air, the birds learning to swim and the fish to fly. It was no longer a struggle of Nature against the seamen but a battle of the elements among themselves. Not one atom of air swirled but that it was not transformed into a pellet of hail, and Neptune rose to extinguish the fire in Jove’s hands, to rob him of the pleasure of burning those humans whom Neptune wanted instead to drown. The sea dug a grave in its own bosom to rob the earth of them and Neptune, seeing the vessel heading uncontrolled towards a rock, with a sudden slap sent it off in another direction.
The ship was immersed, stern and prow, and every time it dipped, it seemed to fly from the top of a tower; the poop sank until the gallery was swamped, and at the prow the waves were bent on engulfing the bowsprit.
Andrapod, who was trying to secure a sail, was torn from the yardarm and, plunging into the sea, struck Boride as he was pulling a hawser, and broke his neck.
The hull refused to obey Ordogne the helmsman, while another gust abruptly tore away the mizzen topsail. Safar tried hard to furl the sails, urged on by Ferrante’s curses, but he could not finish lashing the crow’s nest before the ship swung around and its flank received three waves of such dimensions that Safar was washed overboard. The mainmast shattered and plunged into the sea, not without having first devastated the deck and crushed Asprando’s skull. And finally the tiller broke to pieces as with a wild blow it took the life of Ordogne. Now this wooden relic was without a crew, and the last rats poured overboard, falling into the water they wanted to escape.
It seems impossible that Ferrante, in such a witches’ Sabbath, should think of Lilia, for we would expect him to be concerned only with his own safety. I cannot say whether Roberto considered he was violating the laws of verisimilitude, but to make sure that she to whom he had given his heart did not perish, he had to grant a heart also to Ferrante—if only for an instant.
So Ferrante drags Lilia up on deck, and what does he do? Experience has taught Roberto to have Ferrante bind her fast to a plank, allowing her to slip into the sea, trusting that not even the wild beasts of the Deep will deny mercy to such beauty.
After which, Ferrante seizes another piece of wood, preparing to tie it to himself. But at that moment, onto the deck, freed in some unknown fashion from his torment by the upheaval of the hold, his hands still chained together, more like a corpse than a living man but with eyes alive with hate— steps Biscarat.
Biscarat, who throughout the voyage has remained, like the dog on the Amaryllis, suffering in bonds as every day they reopen that wound which is then briefly treated—Biscarat, who has passed these months with a single thought: to avenge himself upon Ferrante.
Deus ex machina. Biscarat appears suddenly behind Ferrante, who already has one foot on the bulwarks; the officer raises his arms and brings them down before Ferrante’s face, his chain making a noose at Ferrante’s throat. And shouting, “With me, to Hell at last!” Biscarat is seen—almost felt— giving such a tug at Ferrante’s neck that it breaks as the tongue
protrudes between those blasphemous lips and accompanies their final rage. Then the lifeless body of the executed man, falling, drags after it like a cloak the still-living body of his executioner, who, victorious, meets the warring waves with peace finally in his heart.
Roberto could not imagine Lilia’s feelings at that sight, and he hoped she had seen nothing. Since he could not remember what had happened to him after he was caught in the maelstrom, he could not imagine what now happened to Her.
The truth is, he was so fully occupied by the duty to send Ferrante to his proper punishment, resolving to follow his fate into the next world, that he left Lilia in the vast upheaval.
The lifeless body of Ferrante had meanwhile been cast up on a desert island. The sea was calm, like the water in a cup, and on the shore there was no surf. All was enveloped in a light haze, as happens when the sun has just disappeared and the night has not yet taken possession of the sky.
Immediately beyond the beach, with no trees or bushes to mark its end, a plain could be seen, totally mineral, where even what from the distance seemed cypresses proved to be leaden obelisks. On the horizon to the west rose a mountainous area, now dark to the view except for some flickering along the slopes, which gave the place the aspect of a cemetery. But above that height lay long black clouds, their bellies like dying coals, solid and compact in form, or like those cuttlefish bones seen in certain paintings or drawings, which if you look at them sideways freeze into the shape of skulls. Between the clouds and the mountain, the sky still had some tinges of yellow—and you would have thought it was the last aerial space touched by the dying sun if it were not for the impression that this last burst of sunset had never had a beginning and would never have an end.
Where the plain began to rise, Ferrante could make out a little band of men, and he moved towards them.
Men—or, in any case, human beings—they seemed from the distance, but as Ferrante reached them, he saw that if they had once been human, now they had become, or were on the way to becoming, exhibits for an anatomy theater. Which is how Roberto wanted them, because he recalled having visited one day one of those places where a group of physicians in dark clothes—with rubicund faces, little veins glowing on nostrils and cheeks, in pose like so many executioners—stood around a cadaver to expound from the outside what there was inside, and to reveal in the dead the secrets of the living. They removed the skin, incised the flesh, bared the bones, separated the bundles of nerves, untangled the knotted muscles, opened the organs of the senses, isolated all the membranes, undid all the cartilages, detached all the entrails. Having distinguished every fiber, opened every artery, probed every marrow, they displayed to their audience the vital workshop: Here, they said, is where the food is digested, here the blood cleansed, alimentation distributed here, here humors formed, here spirits tempered.... And someone next to Roberto observed in a whisper that after our terrestrial death, Nature would do much the same to us.
An anatomist-God had, in a different way, touched those inhabitants of the island, whom Ferrante was now seeing closer and closer.
The first was a body without skin, the ropes of muscle taut, the arms in a gesture of abandonment, the suffering face turned heavenwards, all skull and cheekbones. The hands of the second had flayed skin hanging from its fingertips, barely attached, like a glove, and the skin of the legs was rolled up to the knee like a supple boot.
On the next, first the skin, then the muscles had been so splayed that the whole body, especially the face, seemed an open book. As if to show skin, flesh, and bones at the same time, thrice human and thrice mortal. It seemed an insect, of which those tatters would have been the wings if there had been on that island a wind to stir them. But these wings did not move by any impulse of the air, stagnant in that twilight; they barely shifted at the movements of the body, akimbo.
Nearby, a skeleton was leaning on a spade, perhaps to dig its grave, its eyesockets peering at the sky, a grimace on the crooked arc of the teeth, the left hand held out as if to beg for compassion and a hearing. Another skeleton, bent forward, preferred the curved back of its spine, walking in jerks, bony hands over a lowered face.
One, whom Ferrante also saw only from behind, still had some cropped hair on its fleshless skull, like a cap pulled forcibly over it. The felt lining, pale and pink as a seashell, which sustained the fur, was formed by the cutis slit at the nape and turned inside out.
There were bodies from which almost everything had been removed, and they seemed sculptures of nerves alone; on the stumps of necks, now acephalous, they waved what once had clung to brains. The legs seemed a plait of withes.
There were others with abdomens opened, where saffron intestines throbbed, sad gluttons stuffed with ill-digested tripes. Where once penises had been, now peeled and reduced to pegs, only dried-up testicles swayed.
Ferrante saw some who were now only veins and arteries, the mobile laboratory of an alchemist, pipes and tubes in perpetual motion distilling the bloodless blood, wan fireflies in the light of an absent sun.
The bodies stood in great and painful silence. In some the signs could be seen of a very slow transformation that from statues of flesh was reducing them to statues of fibers.
The last of them, excoriated like a Saint Bartholomew, held up in his right hand his still-bleeding skin limp as an unused cape. It was possible yet to recognize a face there, with the holes of the eyes and nostrils and the cavern of the mouth, which seemed the ultimate melting of a wax mask, dripping, exposed to sudden heat.
And that man (or, rather, the toothless and deformed mouth of his skin) spoke to Ferrante.
“Ill-come,” he said to him, “to the Land of the Dead, which we call Insula Vesalia. Soon you, too, will follow our fate, but you must not believe that we all pass with the rapidity granted by the grave. According to our punishment, each of us is led to a stage of disintegration all his own, as if to allow us to savor extinction, which for each of us would be the greatest joy. Oh what bliss, to imagine ourselves as brains that would turn to pulp at a bare touch, fats liquefying! But no. As you see us, we have come, each, to his present state without being aware of it, through imperceptible mutation during which every fiber of our being has been worn away in the course of thousands of thousands of thousands of years. And no one knows the extreme point to which it is decreed he must decay, so that those you see over there, reduced to mere bones, still hope to be able to die a little, and perhaps they have spent millennia in that expectation; others, like me, have been in this form since we no longer know when—because in this always imminent night we have lost all sense of time’s passage—and yet I hope that I have been granted a very slow annihilation. Thus each of us yearns for a decomposition that—as well we know—will never be total; we wish that for us Eternity has not yet begun, yet we fear that we have been in it ever since our remote arrival on this shore. Living, we believed Hell was the place of eternal despair, because so they told us. Alas, no, for it is the place of undying hope, which makes each day worse than the one before, as this thirst, which is kept alive in us, is never slaked. Having always a glimmer of body, and every body tending to growth or to death, we never cease hoping—and thus did our Judge condemn us to suffer in saecula.”
Ferrante asked: “But what is it that you hope for?” “You might as well ask what you will hope for yourself.... You will hope that a wisp of wind, a slightest swell of the tide, the arrival of a single hungry leech, can return us, atom by atom, to the great Void of the Universe, where we would again somehow participate in the cycle of life. But here the air does not stir, the sea remains motionless, we feel neither heat nor cold, we know neither dawn nor sunset, and this earth, more dead than we, generates no animal life. O worms that death once promised us! O beloved little worms, mothers of our spirit that could still be reborn! Sucking our bile, you would spatter us mercifully with the milk of innocence! Biting us, you would heal the bites of our sins; cradling us with your spells of death, you would give us new life, because for us the grave is as good as the maternal womb.... But none of this will happen. We know it, and yet our body forgets it at every instant.”
“And God—?” Ferrante asked. “Does God laugh?” “No, alas,” the excoriated man replied, “because even humiliation would exalt us. How beautiful it would be if we could see at least a laughing God come to taunt us! What distraction, the spectacle of the Lord who from His throne, among His saints, makes sport of us. We would have the sight of another’s joy, as cheering as the sight of another’s frown. No, here no one is outraged, no one laughs, no one shows himself. God is not here. Here there is only hope without goal.”
“My God, a curse on all saints,” Ferrante wanted to shout, in his villainy. “If I am damned, I must have the right to enact the spectacle of my fury.” But his body was spent, and the voice that came from his bosom faint. He could not even curse. “You see,” the skinned man said to him, his mouth unable to smile, “your punishment has already begun. Not even hatred is permitted anymore. This island is the one place in the Universe where pain is not allowed, where a listless hope cannot be distinguished from a bottomless boredom.”
Roberto went on constructing Ferrante’s end as he lay on the deck naked, for he had stripped himself for his imitation of a stone; and in the meanwhile the sun burned his face, chest, and legs, restoring to him the feverish warmth that had only recently left him. Now prepared to confuse not only his fiction with reality but also the heat of his spirit with that of his body, he felt once more ablaze with love. And Lilia? What had happened to Lilia while Ferrante’s cadaver sought out the isle of the dead?
With a device not uncommon among Poets when they are incapable of restraining their impatience and no longer observe the unities of time and place, Roberto leaped over some events to find Lilia again some days later, clinging to that plank as it drifted over a now-calm sea glittering in the sun—and she approached (and this, Dear Reader, you never would have dared predict) the eastern shore of the Island of Solomon, that is to say, the side opposite the one off which the Daphne rode at anchor.
There, as Roberto had learned from Father Caspar, the beaches were less friendly than those to the west. The plank, by now too fragile to withstand an impact, shattered against a rock. Lilia woke and clung to that rock as the fragments of her raft were lost among the currents.
Now she was there, on a rock that could barely house her, as a stretch of water—but for her it was an ocean—separated her from the shore. Shaken by the typhoon, wasted by hunger, tormented even more by thirst, she could not drag herself from the rock to the sand, beyond which, her vision blurred, she discerned the colors of vegetable forms.
But the rock was searing beneath her tender thigh and, hardly breathing, instead of cooling her inner blaze, she drew the burning air into herself.
She hoped that not far away darting little streams would spring from shady cliffs, yet these dreams did not appease but, rather, exacerbated her thirst. She wanted to ask help of Heaven, but as her dry tongue cleaved to her palate, her voice could utter only abbreviated sighs.
As time passed, the scourge of the wind scratched her with a raptor’s claws, and she feared not so much dying as living until the work of the elements had disfigured her, making her an object of revulsion, no longer one of love.
If she could have reached a brook, a trickle of living water, and put her lips to it, she would have seen her eyes, once two bright stars that promised life, now two frightful eclipses, and that countenance, where jesting cupids once made their home, now the horrid dwelling-place of abhorrence. If she could have actually reached a pond, her eyes would have poured out, in pity for her own state, more drops than her lips would have taken from it.
This at least is what Roberto made Lilia think. But it irritated him. He was irritated that, close to death, she should be in anguish over her own beauty, as Romances often would have it, but his irritation was more with himself, who could not look squarely, without mental hyperboles, at the face of his dying love.
How would Lilia be, really, in that extremity? How would she appear if stripped of that dress of death woven from words?
After the sufferings of her long voyage and the wreck, her hair would be straw streaked with white; her bosom would surely have lost its lilies, her face would be furrowed by time. Wrinkled, now, her throat and breast.
No, to celebrate her fading was another way of entrusting himself to the poetic machine of Padre Emanuele.... Roberto wanted to see Lilia as she truly was. Her head thrown back, her eyes staring and, narrowed by suffering, appearing to be too distant from the bridge of her nose, now sharpened; and those same eyes were weighed down with bags, the corners marked by a fan of little wrinkles, prints left by a sparrow on the sand. Nostrils slightly dilated, one more fleshy than the other. The mouth chapped, of amethyst color, two arcs at the sides, and the upper lip, a bit protruding, raised to display two little teeth no longer of ivory. The skin of the face gently sagging, two limp folds under the chin, detracting from the line of the neck...
And yet this withered fruit was a prize he would not have bartered for all the angels of Heaven. He loved her also like this, nor could he know if she had been different when he first loved her, wanting her as she was then, behind the curtain of her black veil, that distant evening.
He had allowed himself to be misled during his time as a castaway, wanting her to be harmonious, like the system of the spheres; but now they had also told him (and he had not dared confess this, too, to Father Caspar) that perhaps the planets did not pursue their journey along the perfect line of a circle but instead in a strabismic turn around the sun.
If beauty is clear, love is mysterious: he discovered that he loved not only the spring but all the seasons of his beloved; she was even more desirable in her autumnal decline. He had always loved her for what she was and could have been, and only in this sense is love a giving of the self, without anticipation of return.
He had allowed himself to be dazed by his wave-pounding exile, seeking always another self—dreadful in Ferrante, excellent in Lilia, through whose glory he had wanted to make himself glorious. But, to love Lilia meant to want her as he himself was, both of them sentenced to the travail of time. Until now he had used her beauty to foster the soiling of his mind. He had made her speak, putting into her mouth the words he wanted, words with which he was nevertheless discontent. Now he wanted her near, to love her suffering beauty, her wan voluptuousness, her bruised grace, her thin nakedness, to caress all eagerly, listening to her words, her own, not the ones he had lent her.
He had to have her, dispossessing himself of himself.
But it was too late to pay proper homage to his sick idol.
On the other side of the Island, in Lilia’s veins, liquefied, flowed Death.
Itinerarium Extaticum Coeleste
was this any way to end a romance? Not only do romances arouse hatred so that we may finally relish the defeat of those we hate, but also they invite compassion in order to lead us then to discover, when the danger is over, those we love. Roberto had never read a Romance that ended so badly.
Unless this romance was not yet finished, and there was a secret Hero in store, capable of a feat conceivable only in the Land of Romances.
Out of love, Roberto decided to perform that feat, entering the story himself.
If I had arrived at the Island by now, he said to himself, I could save her. It is only my indolence that has kept me here. Now we are both anchored in the sea, desiring the opposite shores of a single body of land.
And yet not all is lost. I see her dying at this moment, but if at this same moment I were to reach the Island, I would be there a day before she arrives, waiting for her, ready to rescue her.
It is of little matter that I draw her from the sea when she is on the point of breathing her last. It is a known fact that when the body reaches that stage, a strong emotion can restore it to new vigor, and there have been cases of the dying who, on learning that the cause of their misfortune has been removed, suddenly reanimate.
And what greater emotion, for that dying woman, than to rediscover, alive, the beloved person? In fact, I would not even have to reveal to her that I am different from the one she loved, because it was to me and not to him that she gave herself; I would simply be taking the place that has been my due from the beginning. And what is more, Lilia, without realizing it, would sense a different love in my gaze, free of all lust, trembling with devotion.
Is it possible—as anyone would ask himself—that Roberto had not reflected on the fact that this rescue would be granted him only if he were to reach the Island within that day, or at most by the early hours of the following morning: an exploit that his most recent experiments hardly made probable? Is it possible he did not realize that he was planning to land in reality on the Island to rescue a woman who was arriving there only through his narrative?
But Roberto, as we have seen, having begun with the idea that the Land of Romances was completely separate from his own world, had finally come to make the two universes flow effortlessly one into the other, and he had mingled their laws. He thought that he could arrive at the Island because he was imagining his arrival, and that he could imagine hers at the moment when he was already there, because this was what he wished. On the other hand, he was transferring to his own world that freedom to will events and to see them achieved which makes Romances unpredictable. Finally, he would reach the Island for the simple reason that if he did not reach it, he would no longer know what story to tell.
Around this idea, which anyone who has not followed us thus far would judge mad or madness, as you also may, he now reflected in a mathematical fashion, not hiding from himself any of the eventualities that intelligence and prudence suggested.
As a general defines, the night before the battle, the movements his troops will execute on the coming day, and not only pictures the difficulties that could arise and the accidents that could disturb his plan, but also plumbs the mind of the opposing general, to foresee his actions and counteractions, and to arrange his future by acting in consequence of what the other might arrange in consequence of those consequences, so Roberto weighed means and ends, causes and effects, pros and cons.
He had to abandon the idea of swimming to the reef and passing it. He could no longer see the submerged passages, and he could not reach the part that emerged except by facing invisible traps, surely mortal. And finally, even assuming he could reach it—whether underwater or on the surface—there was no certainty he could walk on it with his makeshift boots, or that it did not conceal pits into which he would fall, never to reappear.
He could therefore reach the Island only by repeating the course of the boat, that is, by swimming southwards, following the shore at a distance, more or less at the Daphne’s distance, then turning east once he had rounded the southern promontory, until he gained the inlet of which Father Caspar had spoken.
This plan was not reasonable, and for two reasons. First, until now he had barely managed to swim as far as the reef, and at that point his strength was already exhausted; so it was not sensible to think he could cover a distance at least four or five times that—and without rope, not so much because he did not have a rope that long but because this time, if he went, it was to go, for if he did not arrive, it would make no sense to turn back. The second reason was that swimming southwards meant moving against the current; and knowing by now that his strength sufficed to fight it for only a few strokes, he would be inexorably pulled to the north, beyond the other cape, farther and farther from the Island.
After sternly calculating these possibilities (admitting that life was short, art long, opportunity instantaneous and experiment uncertain), he told himself that it was unworthy of a gentleman to be daunted by such petty calculations, like a bourgeois computing the odds he had in staking at dice his greedily hoarded wealth.
To be sure, he then said, a calculation must be made, but it must be sublime, if the stakes are sublime. What was he gambling in this wager? His life. But his life, if he never succeeded in leaving the ship, was worth little, especially now, if his solitude was accompanied by the knowledge that he had lost Her forever. What would he win if he came through the test? Everything, the joy of seeing her again and saving her, or at worst, of dying on her dead body, covering it with a shroud of kisses.
True, the wager was not fair. There were more possibilities of perishing in the attempt than of reaching land. But even so the alea was advantageous: as if they had told him he had a thousand chances of losing a pitiful sum against one single chance of winning an immense treasure. Who would not accept?
Finally he was seized by another idea, which immeasurably reduced for him the risk of this bet, indeed, saw him victor in either eventuality. Assume, then, that the current did carry him in the wrong direction. Well, but once he passed the other promontory (he knew this because of his experiment with the plank), the current would bear him along the meridian....
If he were to let himself float, his eyes staring at the sky, he would never again see the sun move: he would drift along that border that separates today from the day before, outside time, in an eternal noon. Stopping time for himself, he would arrest it also on the Island, infinitely delay her death, because by now everything that happened to Lilia depended on his narrative decision. If he was suspended, the story of the Island would be suspended.
A highly acute chiasmus, above all. She would find herself in the same position he had occupied now for an incalculable time, a few yards from the Island, and his losing himself in the ocean would make her a gift of what had been his hope, would keep her suspended on the edge of an interminable desire—both of them without a future and hence without a future death.
Then he lingered to picture what his journey would be, and because of the conflation of universes which by now he had sanctioned, he felt as if this was the voyage of Lilia. It was the extraordinary vicissitude of Roberto that would guarantee also for her an immortality that the warp of longitudes would not otherwise have granted her.
He would move northwards at a gentle and uniform speed: on his right and on his left the days and nights would follow one another, the seasons, eclipses, tides; brand-new stars would cross the heavens bearing pestilences and upheavals of empires, monarchs and pontiffs would grow old and vanish in puffs of dust, all the vortices of the Universe would perform their windy revolutions, more stars would be formed from the holocaust of older ones.... Around him the sea would be unleashed and then subdued, the Trades would perform their girandoles, and he in his calm furrow would not change at all.
Would he stop one day? From what he remembered of the maps, no other land save the Island of Solomon lay on that longitude, at least not until that meridian connected with all the others at the Pole. But if a ship, with a following wind and a forest of sails, took months and months to travel a course like the one he was undertaking, how long would he last? Perhaps years before arriving at the place where he no longer knew what would become of day and night, or of the passing of centuries.
But in the meantime he would repose in a love so much refined that it would be careless of losing eyes, lips, and hands. The body would be drained of all lymph, blood, bile, and phlegm, water would enter every pore; penetrating the ears, it would varnish his brain with salt, would replace the vitreous humor of his eyes, would invade his nostrils, dissolving every trace of the terrestrial element. At the same time the sun’s rays would nourish him with igneous particles, and this would dilute the liquid in a single dew of air and fire that by sympathetic force would be recalled upwards. And he, by now light and volatile, would rise and be united first with the spirits of the air, then with those of the sun.
And the same would happen to her, in the steady light ol that rock. She would expand like gold to airy thinness beat.
Thus in the course of days they would be united in that understanding, instant after instant they would be to each other like the stiff twin compasses, each moving with the motion of its companion, one leaning when the other goes farther, to follow or to return together to the center.
Then both would continue their journey in the present, straight towards the star awaiting them, their dust of atoms among the other corpuscles of the Cosmos, a vortex among vortices, now eternal as the world because embroidered with Void. Reconciled to their fate, because the motion of the earth carries evils and fears, but the trepidation of the spheres is innocent.
So in either case the wager will bring him a victory. He should not hesitate. Neither should he prepare for that triumphal sacrifice without observing the correct rites. Roberto entrusts to his papers the last actions he intends to make, and for the rest he leaves us to guess deeds, times, cadences.
As a first liberating lavacrum, he spent almost an hour removing a part of the grating that separated the upper deck from the lower. Then he went below and set about opening every cage. As he gradually pulled away the withes, he was struck by a general flapping of wings, and he had to defend himself, raising his arms before his face, but at the same time crying “Shoo shoo!” He had to push some clucking hens unable to find an egress on their own.
When he climbed back up on deck, he saw the populous flight rise through the rigging, and it seemed to him that for a few seconds the sun was covered by all the colors of the rainbow, striped across their breadth by marine birds who had hastened, curious, to join in this festival.
The birds freed, he flung into the sea all the clocks, not thinking for a moment that he was wasting valuable time: he was erasing time to favor a journey against time.
Finally, to avert any cowardice in himself, he collected on deck, under the mainmast, logs, planks, empty casks, sprinkled them with the oil of all the lamps, and set fire to them.
A first flame blazed up, which immediately licked at the sails and the rigging. When he was certain the fire was being fed by its own strength, he prepared for his farewell.
He was still naked, as he had been since he began dying by turning himself to stone. Stripped even of the rope, which would no longer limit his voyage, he descended into the sea.
He planted his feet against the wood, thrusting himself forward to move away from the Daphne, and after following the side to the stern, he left it forever, towards one of the two happinesses that were surely awaiting him.
Before destiny, and the waters, decide for him, I hope that—pausing for breath every so often—he allows his eyes to move from the Daphne, as he bids it farewell, to the Island.
There, above the line traced by the treetops, his eyes now very sharp, he should see rising in flight—like an arrow eager to strike the sun—the Orange Dove.