but how long had he been sick? Days? Weeks? Or had a storm in the meantime struck the ship? Or, even before encountering the Stone Fish, concentrated as he was on the sea and on his Romance, had he not noticed what was happening around him? For how long had he so lost his sense of reality?
The Daphne had become a different ship. The deck was dirty and the casks leaked, were coming apart; some sails had unfurled and were torn, hanging from the arms like masks, winking and grinning among their rents.
The birds complained, and Roberto hurried to feed them. Some were dead. Luckily the plants, nourished by rain and air, had grown and some had forced their way into the cages, offering pasture to many; for others, the insects had multiplied. The surviving animals had even procreated, and the few dead had been replaced by many living.
The Island remained unchanged; except that for Roberto, who had lost his mask, it had moved farther away, drawn by the currents. The reef, now that he knew it was defended by the Stone Fish, had become insuperable. Roberto could swim again, but only for the love of swimming, while keeping well away from the rocks.
“Oh, human machinations, how chimerical you are,” he murmured. “If man is nothing but a shadow, you are smoke. If nothing but a dream, you are phantoms. If nothing but a dot, you are zeroes.”
So many deeds, Roberto said to himself, only to learn that I am a zero. Indeed, more of a zero than I was at my arrival as derelict. The shipwreck shook me and led me to fight for life, but now I have nothing to fight for or to fight against. I am condemned to a long repose. I am here to contemplate not the Void of spaces, but my own: and from it only ennui will come, sadness, and despair.
For the coral skull was still there on the deck, immune to universal wear; and so, immune to death, it was the only living thing.
This alien form gave new vigor to the thoughts of the castaway, who had been educated to discover new lands only through the telescope of the word. If the coral was a living thing, he said to himself, it was the only truly thinking being amid the general disorder of thought. It could think only of its own ordered complexity, about which it knew everything, and thus would have no expectation of unforeseen disruptions of its own architecture.
Do objects live and think? The Canon had said to him one day that to justify life and its development it is necessary that in every thing there be some burgeoning of matter, some spora, some seeds. Molecules are determined arrangements of determined atoms under a determined form, and if God has imposed laws on the chaos of atoms, their composites can tend only to generate analogous composites. Is it possible that the stones we know are still those that survived the Flood, that they, too, have not developed, and that from them other stones have not been generated?
If the Universe is nothing but a collection of simple atoms that clash to generate their composites, it is not possible that the atoms, once composed into their composites, should cease moving. In every object a continuous movement must be maintained: a whirling movement in winds, a fluid and regulated movement in animal bodies, a slow but inexorable movement in vegetables, and surely much slower but not absent in minerals. Even this coral, dead to coraline life, enjoys its own subterranean stirring, proper to a stone.
Roberto reflected. Let us assume that every body is composed of atoms, even those bodies purely and solely extended, flat, with which Geometricians deal; and let us assume, further, that these atoms are indivisible. It is certain that every straight line can be divided into two equal parts, whatever its length may be. But if its length is minimal, it is possible that we may be dividing into two parts a straight line composed of an odd number of indivisibles. This would mean that if we do not want the two parts to be unequal, the indivisible median has been divided in two. But this, since it is in its turn extended and therefore also a straight line, though of imperceptible brevity, should be in its turn divisible into two parts. And so on ad infmitum.
The Canon said that the atom is still always made up of parts, only it is so compact that we could never divide it within its confines. We. But what about others?
No solid body exists as compact as gold, and yet we take an ounce of this metal, and from that ounce a goldsmith can make a thousand gold leaves, and one half of those leaves suffices to gild the entire surface of an ingot of silver. And taking that same ounce of gold, those who prepare the gold and silver filaments for decorating lace can reduce it with their die to the breadth of a hair, and that thread will be as long as a quarter-league or perhaps more. The artisan stops at a certain point because he does not possess adequate instruments, nor can he with the naked eye still discern the thread he might obtain. But some insects—so minuscule that we cannot see them, and so industrious and wise that their skill outstrips that of all the artisans of our species—could refine that thread still further, until it stretched from Turin to Paris. And if there existed insects of those insects, to what refinement could they not draw that same thread?
If with the eye of Argus I could penetrate the polygons of this coral and the filaments that spread inside it, and inside each filament that which makes up the filament, I could go seeking the atom unto infinity. But an atom divisible to infinity, producing parts ever smaller and ever more divisible, would lead me to a moment where matter would be nothing but infinite divisibility, and all its hardness and its fullness would be sustained by this simple balancing among voids. Matter, rather than feeling a horror of the Void, would then worship it, and would be composed of it, would be void-in-itself, absolute vacuity. Absolute vacuity would be at the very heart of the unthinkable geometrical point, and this point would be only the island of Utopia we dream of, in an ocean made always and only of water.
Hypothesizing a material extension made of atoms, then, we arrive at having no atoms. What remains? Vortices. Except that the vortices would not pull the suns and planets, true matter that feels the influence of their wind, because the suns and planets would themselves be vortices, drawing minor vortices into their spiral. Then the maximum vortex, which makes the galaxies spin, would have in its center other vortices, and these would be vortices of vortices, whirlpools made of other whirlpools, and the abyss of the great whirlpool of whirlpools would sink into the infinite, supported by Nothingness.
And we, inhabitants of the great coral of the Cosmos, believe the atom (which still we cannot see) to be full matter, whereas, it too, like everything else, is but an embroidery of voids in the Void, and we give the name of being, dense and even eternal, to that dance of inconsistencies, that infinite extension that is identified with absolute Nothingness and that spins from its own non-being the illusion of everything.
So here I am illuding myself with the illusion of an illusion—I, an illusion myself? I, who was to lose everything, happened on this vessel lost in the Antipodes only to realize that there was nothing to lose? But, understanding this, do I not perhaps gain everything, because I become the one thinking point at which the Universe recognizes its own illusion?
And yet, if I think about it, does this not mean I have a soul? Oh, what a tangle. The all is made of nothing, and yet to understand it we must have a soul, which, little as it may be, is not nothing.
What am I? If I say / in the sense of Roberto della Griva, I say so inasmuch as I am the memory of all my past moments, the sum of everything I remember. If I say / in the sense of that something that is here at this moment and is not the mainmast or the coral, then I am the sum of what I feel now. But what is what I feel now? It is the sum of those relations between presumed indivisibles that have been arranged in that system of relations in that special order that is my body.
And so my soul is not, as Epicurus would have it, a matter composed of corpuscles finer than the others, a breath mixed with heat; it is the way in which these relations are felt as such.
What tenuous condensation, what condensed tenuousness! I am only a relation among my parts that are perceived while they are in relation to each other. But these parts are in turn divisible into other relations (and so on), therefore every system of relations, being aware of itself, being indeed the awareness of self, is a thinking nucleus. I think me, my blood, my nerves; but every drop of my blood thinks itself.
Does it think itself as I think me? Surely not, in Nature man perceives himself in quite a complex way, the animal a bit less (it is capable of appetite, for example, but not of remorse), and a plant feels itself growing, and surely it feels when it is cut, and perhaps even says /, but in a far more cloudy way than I do. Every thing thinks, but according to its complexity.
If this is so, then stones also think. This stone, too, which actually is not stone but was a vegetable (or animal?). How does it think? Like a stone. If God, who is the great relation of all relations in all the universes, thinks Himself thinking, as the Philosopher would have it, this stone thinks only itself stoning. God thinks entire reality and the infinite worlds He creates and maintains with His thought; I think of my unhappy love, of my solitude on this ship, of my deceased parents, of my sins and of my death; and this stone thinks only I stone, I stone, I stone. But perhaps it cannot even say I. It thinks: Stone, stone, stone.
That must be boring. Or am only I the one who feels bored? I who can think more, while it (or he or she) is entirely content with being stone, as happy as God—because God enjoys being All, as this stone enjoys being almost nothing, but since it knows no other way of being, it is pleased with its own way, eternally satisfied with itself....
But is it true, then, that the stone feels nothing but its stoniness? The Canon used to say to me that even stones are bodies that on some occasions burn and become other. In fact, a stone falls into a volcano and through the intense heat of that unguent of fire, which the ancients called Magma, it melts and fuses with other stones, becomes one incandescent mass, and a short (or long) time later it finds itself part of a larger stone. Is it possible that in ceasing to be that first stone, and at the moment of becoming another, it does not feel its own calefaction, and with it the imminence of its own death?
The sun was striking the bridge, a light breeze tempered its heat, Roberto’s sweat dried on his skin. After all this time spent picturing himself as stone petrified by the sweet Medusa who had ensnared him in her gaze, he resolved to try to think as stones think, perhaps to prepare himself for the day when he would be a simple pile of white bones exposed to that same sun, that same wind.
He stripped, lay down, with his eyes closed and his fingers in his ears so as not to be disturbed by any sound, as is surely the case of a stone, which has no sensory organs. He tried to erase every personal memory, every demand of his own human body. If it had been possible, he would have erased his own skin; unable to, he tried to make it as insensitive as he could.
I am a stone, I am a stone, he said to himself. And then, to avoid even mentioning himself: Stone, stone, stone.
What would I feel if I were truly a stone? First of all, the movements of the atoms that compose me, that is, the stable vibration of the positions that the parts of my parts of my parts maintain among themselves. I would feel the hum of my stoning. But I could not say /, because to say I there must be others, something else against which to oppose myself. In principle the stone cannot know if there is anything outside itself. It hums. Its stoning is a stoning of stoning. Of the rest it knows nothing. It is a world. A world that worlds along on its own.
Still, if I touch this coral, I feel that the surface has retained the sun’s warmth on the exposed part, whereas the part that rested on the deck is colder; and if I were to split it in half, I could perhaps feel how the heat decreases from the top to the bottom. Now, in a warm body the atoms move more furiously, and therefore this rock, if it feels movement, cannot help but feel in its interior a differentiation of movements. If it were to remain eternally exposed to the sun in the same position, perhaps it would begin to distinguish something like an above and a below, if merely as two different types of motion. Unaware that the cause of this difference is an external agent, it would conceive itself in that way, as if that motion were its nature. But if there was an avalanche and the stone rolled downhill and ended in another position, it would feel that other parts of itself were moving, parts formerly slow, whereas those formerly fast would be moving at a slower pace. And as the terrain slid (and it could be a very slow process), the stone would feel that the heat, or, rather, the motion consequent to it, was passing gradually from one part of it to another.
Thinking like this, Roberto slowly exposed different sides of his body to the sun’s rays, rolling across the deck until he came to a patch of shadow, darkening slightly in it, as would have happened to the stone.
Who knows? he asked himself. Perhaps in these motions the stone begins to have, if not the concept of place, at least the notion of part: certainly, of change. Not of passion, however, because the stone does not know its opposite, which is action. Or perhaps it does. For the fact of being stone, so composed, is something it feels constantly, whereas its being hot here or cold there is felt alternately. So in some way it is capable of distinguishing itself, as substance, from its own accidents. Or not. Because it feels itself as relation, it would feel itself as relation among different accidents. It would feel itself as substance in evolution. What does that mean? Do I feel myself in a different way? Who knows if stones think like Aristotle or like the Canon? All this in any case would take it millennia, but that is not the problem: it is whether the stone can store up successive perceptions of itself. Because if it feels itself now hot above and cold below, and now vice versa, but in the second condition it does not remember the first, then it will believe always that its interior movement is the same.
But why, if it perceives itself, should it not have memory? Memory is a power of the soul, and however small the soul of the stone, it will have a proportionate memory.
To have memory means to have a notion of before and after, otherwise I would also believe always that the suffering or the joy I remember are present at the moment I remember them. Instead I know they are past perceptions, because they are fainter than the present ones. The problem therefore is having a sense of time. Which perhaps not even I could have if time were something that is learned. But did I not say to myself days or months ago, before my sickness, that time is the condition of movement and not the result? If the parts of the stone are in motion, this motion will have a rhythm that even if inaudible will be like the sound of a clock. The stone is the clock of itself. Feeling oneself in motion means feeling one’s own time beating. The earth, great stone in the sky, feels the time of its motion, the time of the respiration of its tides, and what it feels I see drawn on the starry vault: the earth feels the same time that I see.
So the stone knows time, indeed it knows it before perceiving its own changes of temperature as movement in space. As far as I know, it does not even need to sense that the change of temperature depends on its position in space: it could understand this as a phenomenon of change in time, like the passage from sleep to waking, from vigor to weariness, just as I realize now that, lying still, my left foot is growing numb.
No, the stone must also feel space, if it senses motion where formerly there was stillness and stillness where formerly there was motion. It knows, then, how to think here and there.
But let us now imagine that someone picks up this stone and sets it among other stones to build a wall. If, before, it sensed the play of its own internal positions, it was because it felt its own atoms bent in the effort to compose themselves like the cells in a beehive, crammed one against the other and one among others, as the stones in the dome of a church should feel, where one presses the other and all press towards the central keystone, and the stones near the keystone press the others downwards and outwards.
But accustomed to that play of thrusts and counterthrusts, the whole dome must feel itself as such, in the invisible movement its bricks make, thrusting one another reciprocally; similarly, it should feel the effort that someone makes to demolish it, and should understand that it ceases to be dome at the moment the wall below and its buttresses collapse.
The stone, then, pressed among other stones to such a degree that it is on the verge of breaking (and if the pressure were greater, it would crack), must feel this constriction, a constriction it did not feel before, a pressure that somehow must influence its own inner movement. Will not this be the moment when the stone senses the presence of something external to itself? The stone would then have perception of the World. Or perhaps it would think that the force oppressing it is something stronger than itself, and it would identify the World with God.
But on the day the wall collapses, ending the constriction, would the stone feel a sense of Freedom—as I would feel if I decided to emerge from the constriction I have imposed on myself? But I can wish to stop being in my condition; the stone cannot. Therefore freedom is a passion, whereas the will to be free is an action, and this is the difference between me and the stone. I can will. The stone at most (and why not?) can only tend to return as it was before the wall, and feel pleasure when it becomes again free, but it cannot decide to act in order to achieve what gives it pleasure.
But can I really will anything? At this moment I feel the pleasure of being stone, the sun warms me, the wind makes acceptable this adjustment of my body, I have no intention of ceasing to be a stone. Why? Because I like it. So then I too am slave to a passion, which advises me against wanting freely its opposite. However, willing, I could will. And yet I do not. How much freer am I than a stone?
There is no thought more terrible, especially for a philosopher, than that of free will. Out of philosophical pusillanimity, Roberto dismissed it as a thought too grave—for him, surely, and all the more for a stone to which he had given passions but had deprived of any possibility of action. In any case the stone, even without being able to ask itself questions about the possibility or impossibility of damning oneself wilfully, had already acquired many and very noble faculties, more than human beings had ever attributed to it.
Roberto now asked himself if, at the moment when it fell into the volcano, the stone was aware of its own death. Surely not, because it had never known what dying meant. But when it disappeared completely into the magma, could it have had a notion of its death as a thing that happened? No, because that composed, individual stone no loner existed. On the other hand, have we ever known of a man aware of having died? If something was thinking itself, it would now be the magma: I magma, I magma, I magma, shlup shlup shlup, I flow, fluid, plop plop splupp, I bubble bub bub, I sizzle, spittle, spatter, patter, platter. Flap. And Roberto, imagining himself magma, spat like a hydrophobe dog and tried to make his viscera grumble. He almost had a bowel movement. He was not made to be magma, better return to thinking like a stone.
But what did it matter to the ex-stone that the magma was magmizing its magmating self? For stones there is no life after death. There is none for anyone to whom it has been promised and granted, after death, to become a plant or animal. What would happen if I died and all my atoms were recomposed, after my flesh was well distributed in the earth and filtered through roots, into the lovely shape of a palm tree? Would I say / palm? The palm would say it, no less thinking than a stone. But when the palm says I, will it mean / Roberta? It would be wrong to deprive it of the right to say I palm. For what sort of palm would it be if it said / Roberto am palm? That composite able to say I Roberto, because it perceived itself as that composite, is no longer. And if it is no longer, having lost that perception, it has lost also the memory of itself. It cannot even say I palm was Roberto. For if such memory were possible, I should now know that I Roberto was at one time... what? Something. But I have absolutely no such memory. What I was before, I no longer know, just as I am incapable of remembering that foetus I was in my mother’s womb. I know I was a foetus because others have told me so, but as far as I am concerned, I might never have been it.
My God, I could enjoy the soul, and even the stones could enjoy it, and precisely from the soul of stones I learn that my soul will not survive my body. Why am I thinking and playing at being a stone, when afterwards I will know nothing further of myself?
But in the final analysis, what is this I that I believe thinks me? Have I not said that it is only the awareness that the Void, identical to extension, has of itself in this particular composite?
Therefore I am not I who thinks, but I am the Void, or extension, that thinks me. And so this composite is an accident, in which Void and extension linger for the blink of an eye, to be able afterwards to return to thinking otherwise. In this great Void of the Void, the one thing that truly is, is the history of this evolution in numberless transitory compositions.... Compositions of what? Of the one great Nothingness, which is the Substance of the whole.
Substance governed by a majestic necessity, which leads it to create and destroy worlds, to weave our pale lives. I must accept this, succeed in loving this Necessity, return to it, and bow to its future will, for this is the condition of Happiness. Only by accepting its law will I find my freedom. To flow back into It will be Salvation, fleeing from passions into the sole passion, the Intellectual Love of God.
If I truly succeeded in understanding this, I would be the one man who has found the True Philosophy, and I would know everything about the God that is hidden. But who would have the heart to go about the world and proclaim such a philosophy? This is the secret I will carry with me to my grave, in the Antipodes.
As I have said before, Roberto did not have the makings of a philosopher. Having achieved this Epiphany, which he polished with the severity of an optician grinding a lens, he experienced—once more—an amorous apostasy. Since stones do not love, he sat up, again a loving man.
But then, he said to himself, if to the great sea of the great and sole Substance we must all return, down below or up above, or wherever it is, I will be united, identical, with my Lady! We will both be part and all of the same macrocosm ... I will be she, she will be I. Is this not the deepest meaning of the myth of the Hermaphrodite? Lilia and I, one body and one thought...
But have I not foretold this event? For days (weeks, months?) I have been making her live in a world that is all mine, even if through Ferrante. She is already thought of my thought.
Perhaps conceiving Romances means living through our own characters, making them live in our world, and delivering ourselves and our creatures to the minds of those to come, even when we will no longer be able to say I...
But if this is so, it is up to me alone to banish Ferrante from my own world, forever, to have his banishment governed by divine justice, and to create the conditions whereby I can be united with Lilia.
Filled with renewed enthusiasm, Roberto decided to conceive the last chapter of his story.
He did not know that, especially when their authors are now determined to die, stories often write themselves, and go where they want to go.