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Damnosa Quid non Imminuit Dies?: The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom

The first few pages of Nooteboom’s novella The Following Story called to mind the same eerie calmness one finds in Kafka’s Metamorphoses.  Herman Mussert goes to sleep in his apartment in Amsterdam but wakes up a hotel room in Lisbon where twenty years previously he had spent a few days with his lover.  Mussert recognizes the room but doesn’t know how here got there or which body he occupies—his current one or the younger one he had on his visit twenty years ago.  He decides to retrace his steps around Lisbon while remembering the events in his life that caused him to visit this city before.

When he was in his early thirties Mussert was a classics teacher at a high school; he loved teaching Latin and he was very successful at it.  In the first part of the book Nooteboom is writing about metamporhosis-–how his character’s life, his career, his loneliness have evolved over the past twenty years.  Mussert had an affair with a colleague, a fellow science teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose obnoxious husband also works at the school and is having his own affair with a student.  The centerpiece and most clever piece of the narrative takes place in Mussert’s  and Marina’s  classrooms when they observe one another’s lessons.  While in Maria’s class Mussert learns all about beetles who use the carrion of rats to mate and reproduce.  Mussert also teaches a lesson on metamorrphosis, that of Phaeton borrowing his father Apollo’s  chariot and crashing it while carrying the sun.  “It is obvious from the start,” Mussert thinks, “that disaster will befall him, that Apollo’s foolish son will come crashing down with his golden chariot and fire-breathing horses.”  Nooteboom’s language is filled with striking images that foreshadow Mussert’s fate.

The catalyst for change in Mussert’s life is his love for Maria.  Life after Maria involves solitary nights with his books, his cat, a different career and an attempt to forget about his time with her.  His strange and sudden appearance in Lisbon brings all the stages of his metamorphosis back to him:

Ignis mutat res (fire changes everything), I muttered, but my matter was not to be changed by any fire. I had already changed. Around me there was burning and melting, other two-headed creatures came to life, but I had long since lost my other, so red-haired head, the female half of me had broken off.  I had become a sort of cinder, a residue.  My reason for being here, on this perhaps or perhaps not sought-after journey, could well be a pilgrimage back to those days, and if so I, like a medieval pilgrim, would have to visit all the sites of my brief hold life, all the stations where the past had a face.

In the second part of the book Mussert suddenly finds himself on a ship, sailing on the ocean, then on the Amazon river, which becomes an elaborate metaphor for his  voyage to the afterlife. Nooteboom’s narrative is filled with images of death and allusions to the underworld.  Mussert describes the last few days of his teaching career, during which time he was giving a lesson on the Crito and Socrates’s death, which ends suddenly and tragically.  Mussert’s fellow passengers on this trip, a priest, an airline pilot, a child, a journalist and an academic, all take turns telling tragic stories of loss suffered during their lives.  And Mussert thinks about his translation of Horace Odes, Book II, and in particular his translation of the lines: Damnosa quid non imminuit dies?  Time corrupts all. What has it not made worse?

As the ship makes its way down the river, the underworld and death metaphors become more obvious with Nooteboom’s stunning language:

The water turned a deeper, more disturbing shad of brown. Large pieces of wood floated on the surface. This was the throat of the great river, this was where the continent spat out its gut, this mud had been carried down from the Andes, through the wounded jungle guarding its last secrets, its last hidden dwellers, the lost world of eternal shadows, the tenebrae. Procul recedant somnia, et noctium fantasmata,  Protect me from bad dreams, the phantasms of the night.

Phaeton. Gustave Moreau. 1878



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Dispelling our Fears: Aline and Valcour Volume 3 by Marquis de Sade

Contra Mundum chose wisely to publish the first complete English translation of Aline & Valcour in three volumes.  Each volume is distinctly different in tone and focus.  The first letters between Aline and Valcour, the eponymous lovers, are sweet and full of hope despite serious obstacles in the way of their union.  The middle part of the novel is a side story that also deals with two lovers—Sainville and Leonore, separated from one another, but who have greater control over their fate.  The final volume, which tells Leonore’s adventure and the tragedy of Aline and Valcour’s ending, is by far the darkest and most philosophical of the narrative.

Although not as graphic as Sade’s later novels, one will find among the pages of this narrative plenty of libertine behavior—incest, rape, necrophilia, and pedophilia.  But Sade uses these horrors, and both the perpetrators and victims, to philosophize about fate, religion, free-will, suicide, and capital punishment.  Sade reminds us in the story that he himself felt that he was a victim of a corrupt justice system.  Men in any position of power—both secular and religious—are the most depraved and hideous characters.  All males who hold a position of authority are sexually deviant and ready to attack any woman with whom they come into contact.  Aline’s father, Monsieur Blamont, the worst offender of them all and a judge for the courts of France, has a voracious sexual appetite and enjoys it more when he tortures his victims and they cry.  He keeps Aline apart from Valcour because he wants to marry her to his equally depraved friend, Dalbourg, so the two of them can share her.

But Sade’s tale is not a black and white, the bad get punished and the good get rewarded, type of moral.  Throughout all of these episodes Monsieur Balmont holds true to the philosophy that pity, empathy, and human affection are worthless in this life and the only thing that matters is satisfying his pleasure.  It is longing, love, and feelings that cause so much grief for people like his wife, daughter, and her lover.  His arguments are cold and chilling:

…one must know how to lift one’s soul to a sort of stoicism that enables us to look upon everything that happens in life with indifference; that, for himself, far from letting anything afflict him, he took joy in everything; and that if we carefully examine what would seem at first to be an obligation—to be cruelly distressed, for example—we would quickly find a pleasant aspect to it.  It’s a question of seizing upon that and forgetting the other; by such a system we can succeed in turning aside all life’s darts. Sensitivity is only a weakness to be readily cured by the forcible repulsion of anything that too closely besets us, to immediately assuage with some voluptuous or comforting idea those barbs that sorrow would inflict.

Monsieur Blamont’s speech has elements of Epicurean philosophy in that sentimental love causes pain and ought to be avoided.  But is Blamont’s callous and cruel behavior really something to which we want to aspire?  The obsession with satisfying his physical desires brings him a certain state of contentedness throughout the novel and although he is never punished for the suffering he inflicts on others, his eroticism is the cause of what small distress he experiences.

In addition to love the other thing that causes distress in the character’s lives is religion.  Aline, her mother, and Valcour are all deeply pious people and no matter how much they pray or do good deeds, they are not better off than those who are atheists or deists in the narrative.  Aline becomes a Lucretia-like figure who sacrifices herself to her God rather than have her innocence ruined.  Her last letters are full of prayers and hopes for finding a more peaceful afterlife.  But who really knows what becomes of the soul in an afterlife?  Will she really be any better off by escaping a miserable existence?

In the end Sade is not truly didactic—he is not proposing we follow a specific religion or philosophy, but he lays out a serious of arguments and possibilities from which we can choose.  Leonore, after she is kidnapped by a deranged Italian Count, is helped by a poor and selfless man who argues that God is indifferent and prayer is useless: “Let us stop, in short, insisting on a God made from the same stuff as us, a God irritated by invective, fond of praise, and obliging of our prayers.  We forever want to see Him as a human monarch who must listen to us and judge.  In that way we diminish His views and his most celebrated worshiper becomes finally nothing but an idolater.”  This description of a distant and unconcerned deity recalls the same one described by Lucretius who, like Sade, is trying to dispel a fear of death and judgment in the afterlife.  It feels as if Sade is pressing towards atheism, but didn’t quite go that far either to retain some semblance of respectability against any religious censors or to cover himself just in case there is an afterlife.

The most remarkable piece of writing in the final volume is when Leonore’s friend puts forward a compelling argument against transubstantiation which also borrows ideas of materialism from Lucretius:

After corporal introduction, the host must be enlarged or, in the instance of a spiritual junction, it must be enlivened. Complete metamorphosis is absolutely impossible; no change of any kind operates by ideas alone; and any such mutation implies extinction of visible parts of the original body and a swift conjuncture of the elements of the second body in the decomposed parts of the first—a process that can only succeed through the force of atoms in the former operating upon those of the latter.

The Church and organized religion are a particular target of Sade’s philosophical diatribes throughout the novel.  In the end, what type of a life should we choose to live in this chaotic, painful, unjust, fucked up world?  Sade gives us the worst of humanity, he brings forward taboo subjects—as Lucretius—so we will be better prepared to face these circumstances in our own lives.  My thoughts go back to Sade’s epigram in which he quotes Lucretius; I see Aline and Valcour as the author’s attempt to dispel the fears of our mind—especially fears concerning love and religion—by encouraging us to use our own reason and nature.

One final note, the Contra Mundum books also include nice  copies of the illustrations from the original publication.





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This White Peace: Camus’s Notebooks

In his notebook entry for November 11th, 1942 Camus writes:

In the morning everything is covered with hoarfrost; the sky is shining behind the garlands and streamers of an immaculate village fair. At ten o’clock, when the sun begins to warm everything, the whole countryside is filled with the crystalline music of an aerial thaw: little cracklings as if the trees were sighing, fall of the frost on the ground like a sound of white insects dropped on one another, late leaves constantly falling under the weight of the ice and barely bouncing on the ground like weightless bones. All around, the hills and valleys vanish in wisps of smoke. After looking at it for a time, one becomes aware that this landscape, as it loses its colors, had suddenly aged. It is a very ancient landscape returning to us in a single morning through millennia…Thus spur covered with trees and ferns juts out like the prow of a ship into the joining of the two streams. Freed from hoarfrost by the first rays of the sun, it is the only living thing in this landscape white like eternity. In this spot at least the mingled voices of the two rushing streams join together against the endless silence surrounding them. But gradually the song of the waters is itself fused into the landscape. Without diminishing a jot, it nevertheless becomes silence. And from time to time nothing but the flight of three smoke-colored ravens brings signs of life back into the sky.

Seated at the peak of the prow, I follow that motionless navigation in the land of indifference. Nothing less than all nature and this white peace that winter brings to overheated hearts—to calm this heart consumed by a bitter love. I watch as this swelling of light spreads over the sky negating the omens of death. Sign of the future in short, above me to whom everything now speaks of the past. Keep quiet, lung! Fill yourself with this icy, pure air that feeds you. Keep silent. May I cease being forced to listen to your slow rotting away—and may I turn at last toward…

It’s only been in the past five or six years that I’ve become very interested in reading the letters, notebooks and diaries of authors. Camus’s Notebooks, which span the years 1939 to 1950 are extraordinary, as the above passages demonstrates, and have given me such a different view of the man and his writing. I’ve even started rereading The Stranger, a book which I have not looked at since I was a teenager.

I was thinking that a good translation project for me next year would be to translate a series of ancient letters—Horace, Seneca or even Pliny.

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Grief and Love: The Notebooks of Camus 1935-1937

In the entry for his notebooks of March, 1936 (no specific date is recorded), Camus writes:

My joy is endless.

Dolorem exprimit quia movit amorem.

There are so many ways to translate this. Exprimit, present tense, literally means “to shake out.” It is a compound of primo, primere, (which becomes “to press” in English) and the preposition ex meaning “out of.” It is a verb of extreme action, almost violence: to shake off dolorem (grief or pain).

And that quia, which is the centerpiece of the phrase, is so important: “because.”

Movit is from the Latin verb moveo, movere (which in English becomes the verb “to move”) but it is the perfect tense. Movit can mean many things, but here I like the translation “to undertake” or “to cause.” Both of these translations imply that he has himself been moved by love (amorem) but has also inspired this feeling in someone else. The change in verb tense, from the present exprimit, to the perfect movit is striking to me as well. He shakes off pain because he has inspired love?

Finally, the chiasmus he uses to compose this sentence is significant. Dolorem (pain, grief) and Amorem (love) frame the sentiment. The verbs are placed close together and, as I mentioned, that quia (because) stands out as the center, the most important part of the phrase.

So I have, for now anyway, decided I like this translation: “He expels pain because he has inspired love.”

But this really raises more questions: Does love, in any form, expunge grief? Can a new love expel the hurt and grief of a previous one? Or is it really easier to shake off grief because we have loved? Is it his love for someone else or the fact that someone else loves him that eases his pain?

Or is it both?

I will be immersed in Camus’s notebooks for some time to come with this phrase lingering in the back of my mind.

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The World is Round

The Sea of Time and Space. William Blake. 1821.

As I’m sitting here at Heathrow waiting for my flight back to Boston my heart and my mind are full of thoughts and emotions. We oftentimes tend to dwell on grief, loss and heartache—broken relationships, silence, distance, and, of course, death. But we rarely speak about the experience of meeting new people and making a new friend. Of all my trips to London, this has been my best experience because of a new friend.

I am reading Caroline Bird’s poetry collection (one of several books I bought on my trip) from Carcanet, “Looking Through Letterboxes” and her poem “Geography Lesson” seems especially fitting:

When you’ve reached the peak,

the summit, the end,

you’ve come to the limit,

let me tell you gently

that the world is round, my sweet,

and it’s all a long walk backwards,

starting from here.

Maybe I’m just too much of an optimist. But I think that, even as an adult, if we keep our minds and hearts open it is possible to meet fantastic, new friends. But as Bird also says in one of her poems, “Only takes you so far, fate.”

The Blake piece also seems fitting and was one of my favorites at The Tate exhibit: ” The Sea of Time and Space” which deals with, among many things, the theme of choice.

More on my trip later, when I’m home and have time to think.

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