Saturday, May 10, 2014

On a Lost Manuscript

IF this page does not appal you, nothing will.

If these first words do not fill you with an uneasy presentiment of doom, indeed, indeed you have been hitherto blessed in an ignorance of woe.

It is lost! What is lost? The revelation this page was to afford. The essay which was to have stood here upon page 127 of my book: the noblest of them all.

The words you so eagerly expected, the full exposition which was to have brought you such relief, is not here.

It was lost just after I wrote it. It can never be re-written; it is gone.

Much depended upon it; it would have led you to a great and to a rapidly acquired fortune; but you must not ask for it. You must turn your mind away. It cannot be re-written, and all that can take its place is a sort of dirge for departed and irrecoverable things.

"Lugete o Veneres Cupidinesque," which signifies "Mourn oh! you pleasant people, you spirits that attend the happiness of mankind": "et quantum est hominum venustiorum," which signifies "and you such mortals as are chiefly attached to delightful things." Passer, etc., which signifies my little, careful, tidy bit of writing, mortuus est, is lost. I lost it in a cab.

It was a noble and accomplished thing. Pliny would have loved it who said: "Ea est stomachi mei natura ut nil nisi merum atque totum velit," which signifies "such is the character of my taste that it will tolerate nothing but what is absolute and full." ... It is no use grumbling about the Latin. The nature of great disasters calls out for that foundational tongue. They roll as it were (do the great disasters of our time) right down the emptiness of the centuries until they strike the walls of Rome and provoke these sonorous echoes worthy of mighty things.

It was to have stood here instead of this, its poor apologist. It was to have filled these lines, this space, this very page. It is not here. You all know how, coming eagerly to a house to see someone dearly loved, you find in their place on entering a sister or a friend who makes excuses for them; you all know how the mind grows blank at the news and all nature around one shrivels. It is a worse emptiness than to be alone. So it is with me when I consider this as I write it, and then think of That Other which should have taken its place; for what I am writing now is like a little wizened figure dressed in mourning and weeping before a deserted shrine, but That Other which I have lost would have been like an Emperor returned from a triumph and seated upon a throne.

Indeed, indeed it was admirable! If you ask me where I wrote it, it was in Constantine, upon the Rock of Cirta, where the storms come bowling at you from Mount Atlas and where you feel yourself part of the sky. At least it was there in Cirta that I blocked out the thing, for efforts of that magnitude are not completed in one place or day. It was in Cirta that I carved it into form and gave it a general life, upon the 17th of January, 1905, sitting where long ago Massinissa had come riding in through the only gate of the city, sitting his horse without stirrups or bridle. Beside me, as I wrote, an Arab looked carefully at every word and shook his head because he could not understand the language; but the Muses understood and Apollo, which were its authors almost as much as I. How graceful it was and yet how firm! How generous and yet how particular! How easy, how superb, and yet how stuffed with dignity! There ran through it, half-perceived and essential, a sort of broken rhythm that never descended to rhetoric, but seemed to enliven and lift up the order of the words until they were filled with something approaching music; and with all this the meaning was fixed and new, the order lucid, the adjectives choice, the verbs strong, the substantives meaty and full of sap. It combined (if I may say so with modesty) all that Milton desired to achieve, with all that Bacon did in the modelling of English.... And it is gone. It will never be seen or read or known at all. It has utterly disappeared nor is it even preserved in any human memory─no, not in my own.

I kept it for a year, closely filing, polishing, and emending it until one would have thought it final, and even then I continued to develop and to mould it. It grew like a young tree in the corner of a fruitful field and gave an enduring pleasure. It never left me by night or by day; it crossed the Pyrenees with me seven times and the Mediterranean twice. It rode horses with me and was become a part of my habit everywhere. In trying to ford the Sousseyou I held it high out of the water, saving it alone, and once by a camp fire I woke and read it in the mountains before dawn. My companions slept on either side of me. The great brands of pine glowed and gave me light; there was a complete silence in the forest except for the noise of water, and in the midst of such spells I was so entranced by the beauty of the thing that when I had done my reading I took a dead coal from the fire and wrote at the foot of the paper: "There is not a word which the most exuberant could presume to add, nor one which the most fastidious would dare to erase." All that glory has vanished.

I know very well what the cabman did. He looked through the trap-door in the top of the roof to see if I had left anything behind. It was in Vigo Street, at the corner, that the fate struck. He looked and saw a sheet or two of paper─something of no value. He crumpled it up and threw it away, and it joined the company which men have not been thought worthy to know. It went to join Calvus and the dreadful books of the Sibyl, and those charred leaves which were found on the floor where Chatterton lay dead.

I went three times to Scotland Yard, allowing long intervals and torturing myself with hope. Three times my hands thought to hold it, and three times they closed on nothingness. A policeman then told me that cabmen very rarely brought him written things, but rather sticks, gloves, rings, purses, parcels, umbrellas, and the crushed hats of drunken men, not often verse or prose; and I abandoned my quest.

There are some reading this who may think me a trifle too fond and may doubt the great glory to which I testify here. They will remember how singularly the things we no longer possess rise upon the imagination and enlarge themselves, and they will quote that pathetic error whereby the dead become much dearer to us when we can no longer smile into their faces or do them the good we desire. They will suggest (most tenderly) that loss and the enchantment of memory have lent a thought too much of radiance and of harmony to what was certainly a noble creation of the mind, but still human and shot with error.

To such a criticism I cannot reply, I have no longer, alas! the best of replies, the Thing Itself, the Achievement: and not having that I have nothing. I am without weapons. Who shall convince of personality, of beauty, or of holiness, unless they be seen and felt? So it is with letters, and if I am not believed─or even if I am─it is of little moment, for the beloved object is rapt away.

Its matter─if one can say that anything so manifold and exalted had a mere subject─its matter was the effect of the piercing of the Suez Canal upon coastwise trade in the Mediterranean, but it is profane to bring before the general gaze a title which can tell the world nothing of the iridescence and vitality it has lost.

I will not console myself with the uncertain guess that things perished are in some way recoverable beyond the stars, nor hope to see and read again the artistry and the result whose loss I have mourned in these lines; but if, as the wisest men imagine, there is a place of repose for whatever most deserves it among the shades, there either I or others worthier may read what will never be read by living eyes or praised by living lips again. It may be so. But the loss alone is certain.

~Hilaire Belloc: from On Nothing & Kindred Subjects

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