CAPLETS, by Ricardo Lida Nirenberg.

A Gnostic Story.

As soon as He arrived in Heaven, Christ leaned over and looked down into the abyss; there He saw His own reflection, with which He fell in love: the reflection was Satan. This retelling of the myth of Narcissus attains the sublime; Pascal, connoisseur of such matters, put it thus: "Greatness does not reside in reaching one end, but in touching both at once."


X, 85, a retired physician, lives simply, watches a little TV, but most of the time he spends reading. Science, Nature, Scientific American, The New England Journal of Medicine: lens in shaky hand, he scans every line, and when I visit him I am informed of recent medical advances. In spite of my acknowledged ignorance he asks, "Don't you find that astounding?" Today I call on X and he insists I partake of his lunch. Before sitting at table he tells me the latest about cells and enzymes. "Astounding!" I volunteer. He raises a clenched fist, "We will still win!" Taken aback at this ardor wrenched from decrepitude, I do not ask what battle he has in mind.

I remember reading about a very old marquise who, seeing the first Montgolfier go up, burst into tears: "Now men can fly, and in fifty years death shall be conquered. I will have missed immortality by this much!"


Like a landscape by Uccello, our intellectual ground is divided into patches separated by brambles. Fields, specialties, discourses or language games: cross the fences at the risk of a torn skin. Nostalgia for the open heath? Beware: there's only a hair's breadth between the Golden Age and the Golden Horde.


I know of no temperament more artistic than P, the painter. On entering his studio I find him weeping; his shoes lie on the floor. Perhaps an injured foot? No, he explains that the contemplation of his shoes, while imagining himself dead, has overpowered him. His empty shoes move him more than Van Gogh's.


Walking behind a woman in Rio de Janeiro, I think, "That talented tensing and relaxing of big muscles, how much more compelling than the works of the mind!" I feel humiliated, till I read that bipedalism, which allowed for the development of the organs of speech, hence of language and our massive brain, wouldn't have occurred without the superb development of the glutei.


An die Musik.

(a) Announcement seen on a bulletin board: "3 guys with guitars and a P.A. seek drummer, keyboardist and bassist to make original music. There's no need to be violent, we just want to make noise."

(b) An avant-garde musician was complaining: he had announced he would conduct John Cage's 4' 33'' according to the authorized edition, and a critic had treated it as a joke. True, the piece (which was to be performed by a chamber ensemble) consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, but the critic didn't seem to be aware that Peters has three blank pages, while in the edition Cage himself authorized the blank is punctuated by two pauses, noted by vertical lines.

(c) I stop at a red light; next to me, a kid in a souped-up Camaro with huge speakers. I raise my voice above the din and shout the words of Zarathustra: "One has to speak with thunder and heavenly fireworks to feeble and dormant senses. But the voice of beauty speaks softly: it steals into only the most awakened souls." The kid gives me the finger and roars off.


The elongated, small-headed, big-footed figures of Alberto Giacometti, always standing or walking, show the Work of the Negative on the European mind. In the small-headed, big-footed, seated and resting figures of Tarsila do Amaral we see the Gift of the tropical Sun. The Swiss and the Brazilian artists are equally far from the Renaissance ideal of human proportions, but, one is tempted to say, in opposite directions.


A Professor of English at a great university in New York, nodding toward one of his colleagues: "His mind is like 42nd Street: one huge library and many porno shops."



(a) We need a dose of the sublime, hence of terror: this could explain the posthumous success of dinosaurs. The Romantics could make do with tigers, solitary woods, water falls; we have subdued them all. Large dinosaurs have not lost their terrorizing charm, for they died before we came into the scene; besides, their very extinction offers the surplus of a frisson: if it happened to them...

(b) One could also use Nietzsche's definition of Science as a sublimation of our ancient fear of wild animals. Thus dinosaurs, uncovered by Science, would be a distilled sublimation of a fear, nothing less.


The Poet as Philosopher (Schiller.)

(a) "Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht," "World history is the world's (only) court of justice," he wrote in a poem titled Resignation. Quoted by Hegel, taken up by column after column with raised fist or outstretched arm, the phrase became a battle cry and was echoed, muffled, by tortured and torturer alike. Schiller meant it with sadness, nostalgia for a heavenly judge, a host of mixed feelings which, in the passage from poem to ideology, were left out.

(b) In a letter to Goethe, "Still, so much is certain: the poet is the only true human being, and the best of philosophers by contrast a mere caricature." The art of caricature consists in underlining a few structural traits and leaving out the soul, the contradictions, the nuance.

(c) He may not be as great a historian as Gibbon, yet often how much deeper! Barbarians, we read in The Decline and Fall, cannot conquer our civilization, for if they possessed the technical and military sophistication to do it, they wouldn't be barbarians. The poet, instead, in his Aesthetic Letters: "Man can be at odds with himself in two ways: either as a savage, when feeling predominates over principle, or as barbarians, when principle destroys feeling."


The Slide of Rhetoric.

Patrick Henry demanded liberty or death, Paris la liberté ou la mort, Roma o morte is the title of one of Carducci's poems. Libertad o muerte was a favorite of Spanish-American revolutions too; Perón o muerte I've seen on many walls. Live free or die, exhort New Hampshire license plates, and at the University of San Andrés in La Paz, capital of Bolivia, huge signs, COMEDOR ABIERTO O MUERTE, call for the re-opening of the cafeteria.


Two Views of History.

Critical moments, momentous facts, watersheds: the view of human time as bristling with peaks out of a plateau is as old as language, as strong as our narrative instinct. The battle of Lepanto, Luther at Worms, the tearing down of the Bastille: these, among others, have been hailed as high points in the history of the West. In the opposite view, History is like the sea, where waves do rise and swell, but everything is soon swept under and erased.


Imagine a history of 17th-century England with no reference to the parliaments. Benedetto Croce managed to write a History of the Kingdom of Naples without mentioning pizza.


One Night Engulfed Them Both. Da Vinci's "spirito divinissimo," Vasari tells, chose to expire in Amboise and in the arms of the French King, realizing that a more honorable death was unlikely. John von Neumann, modern Archimedes, died of bone cancer in Washington, D.C., surrounded by Pentagon brass lest any weapon secret be lost or leaked to the outside.


Romance philologists view the Middle Ages as a bridge between the Ancients and the Moderns, sociobiologists view the individual merely as a transmitter of genes. Specialists, by definition, are unable to follow the Kantian maxim, to regard human beings as ends in themselves.

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