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The Great Art

of Light and Shadow

after devoting his letter to the first memories of the siege, Roberto found some bottles of Spanish wine in the captain’s quarters. We can hardly reproach him if, having lit the fire and cooked himself a pan of eggs with bits of smoked fish, he opened a bottle and permitted himself a regal supper on a table laid almost to perfection. If he was destined to remain a castaway for a long time, he had to maintain good manners and not become bestialized. He remembered how at Casale, when wounds and sickness were causing even the officers to behave like castaways, Monsieur de Toiras requested that, at table at least, each should bear in mind what he had learned in Paris: “To appear in clean clothes, not to drink after each mouthful, but first to wipe moustache and beard, not to lick one’s fingers or spit in the plate, not to blow one’s nose into one’s napkin. We are not imperials, gentlemen!”

He woke the next morning at cockcrow, but he dawdled at length. When in the gallery he again opened the window a crack, he realized he had risen later than the day before, and dawn was already becoming sunrise: behind the hills now the pink of the sky was more intense, as the clouds drifted away.

Since the first rays would soon strike the beach, making it intolerable to his sight, Roberto thought of looking to where the sun was not yet predominant, and he moved along the gallery to the other side of the Daphne, towards the western land. It immediately appeared to him as a jagged turquoise outline, which in a few minutes’ time was divided into two horizontal strips: a brush of greenery and pale palm trees al­ready blazing below the dark area of the mountains, over which the clouds of night obstinately continued to reign. But slowly these clouds, still coal-black in the center, were shred­ding at the edges in a medley of white and pink.

It was as if the sun, rather than confront them, was in­geniously trying to emerge from inside them, though the light unraveled at their borders as they grew dense with fog, rebel­ling against their liquefaction in the sky in order that it become the faithful mirror of the sea, now wondrously wan, dazzled by sparkling patches, as if shoals of fish passed, each fitted with an inner lamp. Soon, however, the clouds succumbed to the lure of the light, and yielded, abandoning themselves above the peaks, while on one side they adhered to the slopes, con­densing and settling like cream, soft where it trickled down, more compact at the summit, forming a glacier, and on the other side making snow at the top, a single lava of ice ex­ploding in the air in the shape of a mushroom, an exquisite eruption in a land of Cockaigne.

What he saw was perhaps enough to justify his shipwreck: not so much for the pleasure that this fickle, attitudinizing nature afforded him, but for the light that this light cast on words he had heard from the Canon of Digne.
Until now, in fact, he had often asked himself if he was not dreaming. What was happening to him did not usually happen to humans; at best it evoked the novels of childhood.

Like dream-creatures were the ship and the animals he had encountered on it; of the same substance as dreams were the shadows that for three days had enfolded him. On cold con­sideration he realized also that even the colors he had admired in the garden and in the aviary appeared dazzling to his amazed eyes alone, that in reality they were heightened only thanks to that patina, like an old lute’s, that covered every object on the ship, a light that had already enveloped beams and casks of seasoned wood encrusted with paint, pitch, oils.... Could not, then, the great theater of celestial crews, which he now thought he saw on the horizon, be likewise a dream?

No, Roberto told himself, the pain that this light now causes my eyes informs me that I am not dreaming: I see. My pupils are suffering because of the storm of atoms that like a great warship bombards me from that shore; for vision is noth­ing but the encounter of the eye with the powder of matter that strikes it. To be sure, as the Canon had said to him, it is not that objects from a distance send you, as Epicurus had it, perfect simulacra that reveal both the exterior form and the concealed nature. You receive only signals, clues, and you ar­rive at the conjecture we call vision. But the very fact that Roberto, a moment before, had named through various tropes what he believed he saw, creating in the form of words what the still formless something suggested to him, now confirmed for him that he was indeed seeing. Among the many certainties whose lack he complained of, one alone is present, and it is that all things appear to us as they appear to us, and it is impossible for them to appear otherwise.

Whereby, seeing and being sure he was seeing, Roberto had the unique sureness on which senses and reason can rely: the certainty that he was seeing something; and this something was the sole form of being of which he could speak, for it was nothing but the great theater of the visible arranged in the basin of Space. Which conclusion tells us much about that bizarre century.

He was alive, awake, and an island lay over there, or per­haps a continent. What it was he did not know, for colors depend on the object that affects them, on the light that is refracted in them, and on the eye that fixes them, thus even the most distant land appeared real to his excited and afflicted eyes, in their transient marriage to that light, to those winds, and clouds. Perhaps tomorrow, or in a few hours’ time, that land would be different.

What he saw was not just the message the sky was sending him but the result of a friendship among sky, earth, and the position (and the hour, the season, the angle) from which he was observing. Surely, if the ship were anchored along another line crossing the rhombus of the winds, the spectacle would have been different. The sun, the dawn, the sea and land would have been another sun, another dawn, a sea and land twins but distorted. That infinity of worlds of which Saint-Savin spoke to him was to be sought beyond the constellations, in the very center of this bubble of space of which he, pure eye, was now the source of infinite parallaxes.

We must grant Roberto one thing: in all his vicissitudes then, he did not press his speculations beyond that point, whether in metaphysics or in the physics of bodies; though, as we will see, he was to do so later, and go farther than he should have; but here we find him already reflecting that if there could be a single world in which appeared different is­lands (for many Robertos who observed them from many ships positioned at different degrees of the meridian), then in that single world many Robertos and many Ferrantes could appear and mingle. Perhaps on that day at the castle he had moved, without realizing it, a few yards with respect to the highest hill on the Isla de Hierro and had seen the Universe inhabited by another Roberto, a Roberto not sentenced to the conquest of the outwork beyond the walls or saved by another father who did not kill the polite Spaniard.

But Roberto surely recurred to these considerations rather than confess that the distant body, made and unmade in vo­luptuous metamorphoses, had become for him the anagram of another body, which he would have liked to possess; and as this land smiled languidly at him, he would have liked to join it and commingle with it, blissful pygmy on the bosom of a lovely giantess.

I do not believe, however, that it was modesty that prompted him to retire, but, rather, the fear of excessive light—and perhaps another summons. He had, in fact, heard the hens announcing a new provision of eggs, and he had the thought of treating himself that evening to a pullet roasted on a spit. But he took the time to trim, with the captain’s scissors, his moustache, beard, and hair, all still a castaway’s. He had decided to enjoy his shipwreck like a holiday in a country villa, which offered him an extended suite of dawns, daybreaks, and (he savored in anticipation) sunsets.

So less than an hour after the hens’ cackling, he went below and immediately realized that while they must have laid their eggs (for their cackling could not have been a lie), there was not an egg to be seen. And, further, all the birds had fresh feed, neatly distributed, still untouched.

Curious as it may seem, his first feeling was of jealousy. Someone else was master of his ship and stole from him those cares and those perquisites to which he was entitled. Losing the world to gain an abandoned vessel only to find that some­one else inhabited it seemed to him as unbearable as the fear that his Lady, inaccessible goal of his desire, might become prey to the desire of another.

Then a more rational concern ensued. Just as the world of his childhood had been inhabited by an Other who preceded him and followed him, clearly the Daphne had holds and quar­ters he did not yet know, where a hidden guest lived, who followed his steps the moment he had gone, or took them a moment before he did.

He ran to hide, too, in his berth, like the African ostrich that, hiding his head, thinks to erase the world.

To reach the quarterdeck he passed the top of a ladder that descended to the hold: what could be hidden down there, considering that on the lower deck he had found a miniature island? Was that the realm of the Intruder? You see, he was already acting towards the ship as towards an object of love which, once it is discovered and you discover you desire it, makes all who had previously possessed it seem usurpers. And it is at this point that Roberto confesses, writing to the Lady, that when he saw her for the first time, and he saw her because his eyes followed another man’s gaze addressed to her, he felt the revulsion of one who espies a caterpillar on a rose.

Such an access of jealousy for a vessel redolent of fish, smoke, and faeces might almost provoke a smile, but by now Roberto was becoming lost in a shifting maze where every junction led him back always to a single image. He suffered doubly, because of the Island he did not have and because of the ship that had him—both unattainable, one through its distance, the other through its enigma—and both stood for a beloved who eluded him, blandishing him with promises that he made to himself alone. I cannot otherwise explain this letter in which Roberto pours out embellished laments only to say, basically, that Someone had deprived him of his morning meal.
My Lady,

How can I expect mercy from one who is destroying me? And yet to whom, if not to you, can I confide my suffering, seeking solace, if not in your

listening, at least in my unlistened-to words? If love is a medicine that heals every pain with a yet greater pain, can I not perhaps conceive of it as a suffering that kills through excess every other suffering, until it becomes a balm for all save itself? For if ever I saw beauty and wanted it, it was only in the dream of you, and why should I lament that another beauty is for me equally a dream? It would be worse if I made that beauty mine and were sated with it, no longer suffering with the image of you: for scarce balm would I enjoy, and the sickness would increase in the remorse for that infidelity. Better to trust in your image, the more so now that I have glimpsed once again an enemy whose features I do not know and perhaps wish never to know. To ignore this hated phantom, may your beloved phantom sustain me. May love make of me at least an insensitive fragment, a mandragora, a fountain of stone that weeps away every anguish....
But, tormenting himself as he does, Roberto does not be­come a fountain of stone, and he promptly connects the an­guish he is feeling to the other anguish he felt at Casale, this with effects—as we shall see—far more dire.

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