we will remember, I hope—for Roberto has borrowed from the novelists of his century the habit of narrating so many stories at once that at a certain point it becomes difficult to pick up the thread—that from his first visit to the world of coral our hero brought back the stone double, which seemed to him a skull, perhaps Father Caspar’s.
Now, to forget the loves of Lilia and Ferrante, he was seated on deck at sunset, contemplating that object, examining its form.
It did not seem a skull. It was, rather, a mineral hive composed of irregular polygons, but the polygon was not the elementary unit of that object: each polygon revealed in its center a spoked symmetry of very fine threads, among which appeared—if you sharpened your eyes—cavities that perhaps formed other polygons and, if the eye could penetrate still further, it would perhaps see that the faces of those tiny polygons were made of other, still tinier, polygons, until—dividing the parts into parts of parts—the point came when they would end, having arrived at those parts not further divisible, which are the atoms. But since Roberto did not know to what degree matter could be divided, it was not clear to him how far his eyes—alas, not lynx-like, since he did not possess that lens through which Caspar had been able to identify even the animalcules of the plague—could descend into the abyss, finding new forms within the forms he perceived.
Even the head of the abbe, as Saint-Savin had shouted that night during the duel, could be a whole world for his lice— and, ah! Roberto, hearing the words again, thought of the world inhabited by those happiest of insects, the lice of Anna Maria (or Francesca) Novarese! But since lice are not atoms either but vast universes for the atoms that compose them, perhaps inside the body of the louse there are other animals still tinier who live there as in a spacious world. And perhaps my very flesh—Roberto thought—and my blood are no more than wefts of minuscule animals, that, in moving, lend me movement, allowing themselves to be conducted by my will, which serves them as coachman. And my animals are surely wondering where I am taking them now, subjecting them to an alternation of marine coolness and solar ardor, and, confounded by this turmoil of unstable climes, they are as uncertain of their destiny as I am of mine.
And what if even more minuscule animals found themselves in an equally unlimited space?
What stops me from thinking this? Only the fact that I have never learned anything about it? As my friends in Paris used to say to me, someone on the tower of Notre-Dame, looking down from that height at the Faubourg Saint-Denis, could never think that ill-defined spot was inhabited by beings similar to us. We see the planet Jove, which is very big, but from Jove they do not see us, and they cannot even conceive of our existence. And even yesterday, would I have suspected that beneath the sea—not on a remote planet or in a drop of water, but in a part of our own world—Another World existed?
And for that matter, until a few months ago, what did I know of the Austral Land? I would have said it was the fancy of heretic geographers; and perhaps—who knows?—in these islands, in times past, they burned some of their own philosophers for asserting in guttural grunts the existence of Mon-ferrato and of France. And yet now I am here, and I must perforce believe that the Antipodes exist—and that, contrary to the opinion once held by very wise men, I am not walking with my feet up and my head down. Simply, the inhabitants of this world occupy the stern of the vessel, and we occupy the prow, and, each knowing nothing of the other, we are both sailing.
The art of flying is still unknown and yet—if we can believe one Mr. Goodwin, of whom M. d’lgby told me—one day we will go to the moon as we have gone to America, even if before Columbus no one suspected that the continent existed, nor that one day it would be given that name.
Sunset gave way to evening, and evening to night. The moon was now full, and Roberto, seeing it in the sky, could make out its spots, which children and ignoramuses consider the eyes and mouth of a benevolent face.
To provoke Father Caspar (in what world, on what planet of the righteous was the dear old man now?), Roberto had once spoken to him about the inhabitants of the moon. But can the moon really be inhabited? Why not? It was as Saint-Denis said: What do the humans of this world know of what is up there?
Roberto reasoned: If, standing on the moon, I fling a stone high, will it perhaps fall on the earth? No, it will fall on the moon. So the moon, like any other planet or star, as may be, is a world that has a center of its own, and a circumference, and this center attracts all the bodies that live within the sphere of that world’s dominion. As on the earth. Then why can all the other things that happen on earth not happen also on the moon?
There is an atmosphere that enfolds the moon. On the Palm Sunday of forty years ago did not someone see, as I have been told, clouds on the moon? On that planet, in the imminence of an eclipse, is it not possible to see a great trepidation? And what is this if not proof that there is air? The planets evaporate, and so do the stars: what else are the spots that are said to be on the sun, which generate the shooting stars?
And on the moon there is surely water. How explain otherwise her spots than that they are the image of lakes (in fact, someone has suggested that these lakes are artificial, like human works, so neatly defined are they and arranged at regular distances)? Moreover, if the moon had been conceived as a great mirror serving to reflect the sun’s light onto the earth, why would the Creator have blemished that mirror with spots? Therefore the spots are not imperfections but perfections, and hence ponds, or lakes, or seas. And up there, if water exists, and air, then so does life.
A life perhaps different from ours. Perhaps that water has the flavor of (let us say) glycyrrhizin, or cardamon, or even of pepper. If there are infinite worlds, this proves the infinite ingenuity of the Engineer of our Universe, but then there is no limit to this Poet. He can have created inhabited worlds everywhere, but inhabited by ever-different creatures. Perhaps the inhabitants of the sun are sunnier, brighter, and more illuminated than are the inhabitants of the earth, who are heavy with matter, and the inhabitants of the moon lie somewhere in between. On the sun live beings who are all Form, or all Act, if you prefer, while on the earth beings are made of mere Potentials that evolve, and on the moon they are in media fluctuantes, lunatics, so to speak....
Could we live in the moon’s air? Perhaps not, it might make us dizzy; for that matter, fish cannot live in ours, nor can birds in the air of fish. The air of the moon must be purer than ours, but like ours, thanks to its density, it serves as a natural lens that filters the sun’s rays, though the Selenites see the sun quite differently. Dawn and twilight, which illuminate us when the sun has not yet come or has just left, are a gift of our air which, rich in impurities, captures and transmits its light; this is light lavished on us to excess. Yet those rays prepare us for the acquisition and the loss of the sun little by little. Perhaps on the moon, since the air is finer, their days and nights arrive all of a sudden. The sun rises abruptly on the horizon like the parting of a curtain. Then, from the most dazzling light, all plunges at once into the most bituminous darkness. And the moon would lack the rainbow, an effect of vapors mixed with air. But perhaps for the same reason they have neither rain nor thunder and lightning.
And the inhabitants of the planets closer to the sun, what can they be like? Fiery as Moors, but much more spiritual than we. How big will the sun be for them? How do they tolerate its light? Up there, do metals melt in nature and flow like rivers:
But are there really infinite worlds? A question of this sort provoked a duel in Paris. The Canon of Digne said he did not know the answer. Or, rather, the study of physics would lead him to say yes, in accord with the great Epicurus. The world can only be infinite. Atoms crowd into the Void. That bodies exist is borne out by sensation. That the Void exists is borne out by reason. How and where could the atoms move otherwise? If there were no Void, there would be no motion, unless bodies penetrate one another. It would be ridiculous to think that when a fly presses a particle of air with its wing, that particle shifts another below it, and that yet another, so that the scratching of a flea’s leg, from movement to movement, would finally produce a lump at the far end of the world!
On the other hand, if the Void were infinite and the number of atoms finite, they would never cease moving on all sides, they would never jostle one another (as two people would never meet, if not through inconceivable coincidence, wandering through an endless desert), and so they would not produce their composites. And if the Void were finite and bodies infinite, there would not be room to contain them.
Naturally, it would suffice to imagine a Void inhabited by atoms in a finite number. The Canon told me this is the more prudent opinion. Why obligate God like some theatrical manager to produce infinite performances? He manifests His freedom eternally through the creation and maintainence of a single world. There are no arguments against the plurality of worlds, but there are also none in its favor. God, who was before the world, has created a sufficient number of atoms, in a space sufficiently wide, to compose His masterpiece. A part of His infinite perfection is also the Genius of Limitation.
To see if and how many worlds there were in a dead thing, Roberto went into the little museum on the Daphne, and he lined up on the bridge, as if he had before him so many astragals, all the dead objects he found there: fossils, pebbles, fish bones; he shifted his eyes from one to the other, continuing to reflect on Chance and chances.
But how do I know (he asked himself) that God tends to limitation, when my experience constantly reveals to me other, new worlds, whether up above or down below? It could then be that not God but the world is eternal and infinite and has always been so and ever shall be, in an infinite recompo-sition of its infinite atoms in an infinite void, according to laws I do not know yet, through unpredictable but regulated shifts of the atoms, which otherwise would move wildly. And then the world would be God. God would be born of eternity as Universe without shores, and I would be subject to its law, without knowing what that law was.
Fool, some say: you can speak of the infinity of God because you are not called upon to conceive it with your mind, but only to believe in it as one believes in a Mystery. But if you want to speak of natural philosophy, you must also conceive this infinite world, and you cannot.
Perhaps. But let us think, then, that the world is both full and finite. And let us try to conceive the Nothingness that comes after the world has ended. When we think of that Nothingness, can we perhaps picture it as a wind? No, because it would have to be truly nothing, not even wind. In terms of natural philosophy—not of faith—is an interminable nothing conceivable? It is much easier to imagine horned men or two-tailed fish through composition of parts already known: we can only add to the world, where we believe it ends, more parts similar to those we already know (an expanse made again and always of water and land, stars and skies). Without limit.
But if the world were finite, Nothingness, inasmuch as it is nothing, could not be, and what then would lie beyond the confines of the world? The Void. And so, to deny the infinite we affirm the Void, which can only be infinite, otherwise at its end we would have to think again of a new and inconceivable expanse of nothing. Thus it is better to think at once and freely of the Void and people it with atoms, reserving the right to think of it as empty, emptier than any emptiness.
Roberto discovered he was enjoying a great privilege, which gave a meaning to his defeat. Here he was holding the clear proof of the existence of other skies, but at the same time without having to ascend beyond the celestial spheres, for he intuited many worlds in a piece of coral. Was there any need to calculate the number of forms which the atoms of the Universe could create—burning at the stake all those who said their number was not finite—when it sufficed to meditate for years on one of these marine objects to realize how the deviation of a single atom, whether willed by God or prompted by Chance, could generate inconceivable Milky Ways?
The Redemption? A false argument, indeed—Roberto protested, to avoid trouble with the next Jesuit he might meet— the argument of those who cannot conceive the Lord’s omnipotence. Who can deny the possibility that in the great plan of Creation, Original Sin was realized at the same time on all worlds, in different and unheard-of ways yet all equally, so that Christ died on the Cross for all, including the Selenites and the Syrians and the Coralines who lived on the molecules of this tunneled rock when it was still living?
To tell the truth, Roberto was not entirely convinced by his own arguments; he was composing a dish that had too many ingredients, or, rather, he was cramming into a single argument things heard in various places—and he was not so ingenuous that he did not realize as much. So, having defeated one possible adversary, he restored speech to him and identified himself with the opponent’s rebuttal.
Once, in speaking of the Void, Father Caspar had silenced him with a syllogism which Roberto could not answer: the Void is not being, but not being cannot be, ergo the Void cannot be. The reasoning was sound, because it denied the Void while granting that it could be conceived. In fact, we can quite easily conceive things that do not exist. Can a chimera, buzzing in the Void, devour second intentions? No, because chimeras do not exist, in the Void no buzzing can be heard, and intentions are mental things—an intended pear does not nourish us. And yet I can think of a chimera even if it is chimerical, namely, if it is not. And the same with the Void.
Roberto recalled the reply of a nineteen-year-old youth who one day in Paris had been invited to a gathering of his philosopher friends because he was said to be designing a machine capable of arithmetical calculations. Roberto had not clearly understood how the machine was supposed to work, and he had considered the boy (perhaps out of acrimony) too wan, too sad, and too pedantic for his age, whereas Roberto’s libertine friends were teaching him that you could be learned in a playful fashion. And Roberto had tolerated it still less when, as they were discussing the Void, the boy insisted on speaking, even with a certain impudence: “There has been too much talk of the Void. Now it must be demonstrated through experiment.” And he said this as if that task would one day fall to him.
Roberto asked what experiment he had in mind, and the boy replied that he did not yet know. To embarrass him, Roberto listed all the philosophical objections he could think of: If the Void existed, it would not be matter (which is full), nor would it be spirit, for we cannot conceive a spirit that is void, nor would it be God, because it would lack even its self, it would be neither substance nor accident, it would shed its light without being hyaline.... What, then, would it be?
The boy replied with humble boldness, his eyes lowered: “Perhaps it would be something halfway between matter and nothingness, and would partake of neither. It would differ from nothingness because of its dimension, and from matter because of its immobility. It would be almost a not-being. Not supposition, not abstraction. It would be. It would be—how shall I say it?—a fact. Pure and simple.”
“What is a fact pure and simple, lacking any determination?” Roberto asked with scholastic arrogance. Though he had no opinions on the subject, he, too, wanted to talk pedantically.
“I am unable to define what is pure and simple,” the youth answered. “For that matter, sir, how can you define being? To define it, it would be necessary to say that it is something. Thus to define being you would first have to say is and therefore use in the definition the term being defined. I believe there are terms impossible to define, and perhaps the Void is one of them. But I may be mistaken.”
“You are not mistaken. The Void is like time,” one of Roberto’s libertine friends commented. “Time is not the quantity of movement, because movement depends on time and not vice versa; it is infinite, increate, continuous, it is not an accident of space.... Time is, and that is that. And the Void is. And that is also that.”
Some protested, saying a thing that is and that is that, without having a definable essence, might just as well not be. “Gentlemen,” the Canon of Digne then said, “it is true, space and time are neither body nor spirit, they are immaterial, if you like, but this does not mean they are not real. They are not accident and they are not substance, and yet they came before Creation, before any substance and any accident, and they will exist also after the destruction of every substance. They are immutable and invariable, whatever you may put inside them.”
“But,” Roberto objected, “space also extends, and extension is a property of bodies....”
“No,” the libertine friend rebutted, “the fact that all bodies extend does not mean that everything extended is a body— as a certain gentleman would have it, who moreover would not deign to reply to me, because it seems he no longer wants to return from Holland. Extension is the disposition of all that is. Space is absolute extension, eternal, infinite, increate, illimitable, uncircumscribed. Like time, it has no end, is inaccessible, impossible to disperse, it is an Arabian phoenix, a serpent biting its tail....”
“Sir,” the Canon said, “let us not put space in God’s stead....”
“Sir,” the libertine replied, “you cannot present to us ideas that all of us consider true, then demand that we not draw from them the ultimate consequences. I suspect that at this point we no longer need God or His infinity, because we already have enough infinities on all sides reducing us to a shadow that lasts only an instant without return. So, then, I propose banishing all fear, and going—in a body—to the tavern.”
Shaking his head, the Canon took his leave. And so did the youth, who seemed quite troubled by this talk; head bowed, he excused himself and said he had to return to his house.
“Poor boy,” the libertine then said, “he builds machines to count the finite, and we have terrified him with the eternal silence of too many infinities. Voila, the end of a fine vocation.”
“He will not recover from the blow,” another of the Pyr-rhonians said. “He will try to make peace with the world, and he will end up among the Jesuits.”
Roberto thought now of that dialogue. The Void and space were like time, or time was like the Void and space. Sidereal spaces exist where our earth appears like an ant, and so do spaces such as the world of corals, the ants of our Universe— and all these spaces are one inside the other.... Was it therefore unthinkable that there could be worlds subject to different times? Has it not been said that on Jove one day lasts a year? Therefore worlds must exist that live and die in the space of an instant, or survive beyond our ability to calculate both the Chinese dynasties and the date of the Flood. Worlds where all movements and the response to those movements do not occupy the time of hours and minutes but of millennia.
Did there not exist—and close at hand—a place where the time was yesterday?
Perhaps he had already entered one of those worlds where, once an atom of water had begun corroding the shell of a dead coral, now crumbled and scattered by the many years that had passed, as many as those from the birth of Adam to the Redemption. And was he not living his own love in this time, where Lilia, like the Orange Dove, had become something for whose conquest he now had at his disposal the tedium of centuries? Was he not preparing to live in an infinite future?
Towards many similar reflections a young gentleman who had only recently discovered those corals felt himself driven.... And there is no knowing where he would have arrived if he had had the spirit of a true philosopher. But Roberto was not a philosopher; instead he was an unhappy lover barely emerging from a venture, all things considered, not crowned with success: towards an Island that eluded him in the icy brumes of the day before.
He was, however, a lover who though educated in Paris had not forgotten his country life. Therefore he came to conclude that the time he was thinking about could be stretched in a thousand ways like dough made with egg yolks, as he had seen the women at La Griva knead it. I do not know why Roberto hit upon this simile—perhaps too much thinking had whetted his appetite, or perhaps, terrified by the eternal silence of all those infinities, he would have liked to be home again in the maternal kitchen. He soon went on to recall other rustic delicacies.
There were the pies stuffed with little birds, hares, and pheasants, as if to affirm that there can be many worlds, one next to the other or a world within a world. But his mother also made those cakes known as “German-style,” with seven layers or stripes of fruit partitioned with butter, sugar, and cinnamon. And from that idea he went on to envision a salted cake, where amid various strata of pastry he put first one of ham, then one of sliced hard-boiled egg, then one of green vegetable. And this led Roberto to think that the Universe could be a pan in which different stories were cooking at the same time, each at its own rate but perhaps all with the same characters. And as the eggs that are below in a pie have no notion of what is happening, beyond their layer of pastry, to their fellow eggs or to the ham above them, so in one stratum of the Universe one Roberto could not know what the other was doing.
Granted, this is not a refined way of reasoning, and with the belly, moreover. But it is obvious he already had in mind the point at which he wanted to arrive: In a single moment many different Robertos could be doing different things, perhaps under different names.
Perhaps under the name of Ferrante? In that case, could the story he believed he was inventing about an enemy brother not be the obscure perception of a world where to him, Roberto, other vicissitudes were occurring, different from those he was experiencing in this world and at this time?
Come now, he said to himself, of course you would have liked to be the one experiencing what Ferrante experienced when the Tweede Daphne unfurled her sails to the wind. But this we know because, as Saint-Savin said, there exist thoughts we do not think about at all, though they make an impression on the heart without the heart (still less the mind) becoming aware; and it is inevitable that some of these thoughts—which at times are nothing but obscure desires, and not even all that obscure—should be introduced into the universe of the Romance that you think you are conceiving for the pleasure of portraying the thoughts of others... But I am I, and Ferrante is Ferrante, and now I will prove it, having him experience adventures of which I could not be the protagonist—and which, if they take place in any universe, it is that of Imagination, parallel to none other.
And he took pleasure, all that night long, heedless of the corals, in conceiving an adventure that, however, would lead him once again to the most lacerated delight, the most exquisite suffering.