Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 23

The two individuals — The long pipe — The Germans — Werther — The female Quaker — Suicide — Gibbon — Jesus of Bethlehem — Fill your glass — Shakespeare — English at Minden — Melancholy Swayne Vonved — The fifth dinner — Strange doctrines — Are you happy? — Improve yourself in German.

It might be some six months after the events last recorded, that two individuals were seated together in a certain room, in a certain street of the old town which I have so frequently had occasion to mention in the preceding pages; one of them was an elderly, and the other a very young man, and they sat on either side of a fireplace, beside a table on which were fruit and wine; the room was a small one, and in its furniture exhibited nothing remarkable. Over the mantelpiece, however, hung a small picture with naked figures in the foreground, and with much foliage behind. It might not have struck every beholder, for it looked old and smoke-dried; but a connoisseur, on inspecting it closely, would have pronounced it to be a judgment of Paris, and a masterpiece of the Flemish school.

The forehead of the elder individual was high, and perhaps appeared more so than it really was, from the hair being carefully brushed back, as if for the purpose of displaying to the best advantage that part of the cranium; his eyes were large and full, and of a light brown, and might have been called heavy and dull, had they not been occasionally lighted up by a sudden gleam — not so brilliant however as that which at every inhalation shone from the bowl of the long clay pipe which he was smoking, but which, from a certain sucking sound which about this time began to be heard from the bottom, appeared to be giving notice that it would soon require replenishment from a certain canister, which, together with a lighted taper, stood upon the table beside him.

‘You do not smoke?’ said he, at length, laying down his pipe, and directing his glance to his companion.

Now there was at least one thing singular connected with this last, namely, the colour of his hair, which, notwithstanding his extreme youth, appeared to be rapidly becoming gray. He had very long limbs, and was apparently tall of stature, in which he differed from his elderly companion, who must have been somewhat below the usual height.

‘No, I can’t smoke,’ said the youth, in reply to the observation of the other; ‘I have often tried, but could never succeed to my satisfaction.’

‘Is it possible to become a good German without smoking?’ said the senior, half speaking to himself.

‘I daresay not,’ said the youth; ‘but I shan’t break my heart on that account.’

‘As for breaking your heart, of course you would never think of such a thing; he is a fool who breaks his heart on any account; but it is good to be a German, the Germans are the most philosophic people in the world, and the greatest smokers: now I trace their philosophy to their smoking.’

‘I have heard say their philosophy is all smoke — is that your opinion?’

‘Why, no; but smoking has a sedative effect upon the nerves, and enables a man to bear the sorrows of this life (of which every one has his share) not only decently, but dignifiedly. Suicide is not a national habit in Germany as it is in England.’

‘But that poor creature, Werther, who committed suicide, was a German.’

‘Werther is a fictitious character, and by no means a felicitous one; I am no admirer either of Werther or his author. But I should say that, if there ever was a Werther in Germany, he did not smoke. Werther, as you very justly observe, was a poor creature.’

‘And a very sinful one; I have heard my parents say that suicide is a great crime.’

‘Broadly, and without qualification, to say that suicide is a crime, is speaking somewhat unphilosophically. No doubt suicide, under many circumstances, is a crime, a very heinous one. When the father of a family, for example, to escape from certain difficulties, commits suicide, he commits a crime; there are those around him who look to him for support, by the law of nature, and he has no right to withdraw himself from those who have a claim upon his exertions; he is a person who decamps with other people’s goods as well as his own. Indeed, there can be no crime which is not founded upon the depriving others of something which belongs to them. A man is hanged for setting fire to his house in a crowded city, for he burns at the same time or damages those of other people; but if a man who has a house on a heath sets fire to it, he is not hanged, for he has not damaged or endangered any other individual’s property, and the principle of revenge, upon which all punishment is founded, has not been aroused. Similar to such a case is that of the man who, without any family ties, commits suicide; for example, were I to do the thing this evening, who would have a right to call me to account? I am alone in the world, have no family to support, and, so far from damaging any one, should even benefit my heir by my accelerated death. However, I am no advocate for suicide under any circumstances; there is something undignified in it, unheroic, unGermanic. But if you must commit suicide — and there is no knowing to what people may be brought — always contrive to do it as decorously as possible; the decencies, whether of life or of death, should never be lost sight of. I remember a female Quaker who committed suicide by cutting her throat, but she did it decorously and decently: kneeling down over a pail, so that not one drop fell upon the floor; thus exhibiting in her last act that nice sense of neatness for which Quakers are distinguished. I have always had a respect for that woman’s memory.’

And here, filling his pipe from the canister, and lighting it at the taper, he recommenced smoking calmly and sedately.

‘But is not suicide forbidden in the Bible?’ the youth demanded.

‘Why, no; but what though it were! — the Bible is a respectable book, but I should hardly call it one whose philosophy is of the soundest. I have said that it is a respectable book; I mean respectable from its antiquity, and from containing, as Herder says, “the earliest records of the human race,” though those records are far from being dispassionately written, on which account they are of less value than they otherwise might have been. There is too much passion in the Bible, too much violence; now, to come to all truth, especially historic truth, requires cool dispassionate investigation, for which the Jews do not appear to have ever been famous. We are ourselves not famous for it, for we are a passionate people; the Germans are not — they are not a passionate people — a people celebrated for their oaths; we are. The Germans have many excellent historic writers, we . . . ’tis true we have Gibbon . . . You have been reading Gibbon — what do you think of him?’

‘I think him a very wonderful writer.’

‘He is a wonderful writer — one sui generis — uniting the perspicuity of the English — for we are perspicuous — with the cool dispassionate reasoning of the Germans. Gibbon sought after the truth, found it, and made it clear.’

‘Then you think Gibbon a truthful writer?’

‘Why, yes; who shall convict Gibbon of falsehood? Many people have endeavoured to convict Gibbon of falsehood; they have followed him in his researches, and have never found him once tripping. Oh, he is a wonderful writer! his power of condensation is admirable; the lore of the whole world is to be found in his pages. Sometimes in a single note he has given us the result of the study of years; or, to speak metaphorically, “he has ransacked a thousand Gulistans, and has condensed all his fragrant booty into a single drop of otto.”’

‘But was not Gibbon an enemy to the Christian faith?’

‘Why, no; he was rather an enemy to priestcraft, so am I; and when I say the philosophy of the Bible is in many respects unsound, I always wish to make an exception in favour of that part of it which contains the life and sayings of Jesus of Bethlehem, to which I must always concede my unqualified admiration — of Jesus, mind you; for with his followers and their dogmas I have nothing to do. Of all historic characters Jesus is the most beautiful and the most heroic. I have always been a friend to hero-worship, it is the only rational one, and has always been in use amongst civilised people — the worship of spirits is synonymous with barbarism — it is mere fetish; the savages of West Africa are all spirit-worshippers. But there is something philosophic in the worship of the heroes of the human race, and the true hero is the benefactor. Brahma, Jupiter, Bacchus, were all benefactors, and, therefore, entitled to the worship of their respective peoples. The Celts worshipped Hesus, who taught them to plough, a highly useful art. We, who have attained a much higher state of civilisation than the Celts ever did, worship Jesus, the first who endeavoured to teach men to behave decently and decorously under all circumstances; who was the foe of vengeance, in which there is something highly indecorous; who had first the courage to lift his voice against that violent dogma, “an eye for an eye”; who shouted conquer, but conquer with kindness; who said put up the sword, a violent unphilosophic weapon; and who finally died calmly and decorously in defence of his philosophy. He must be a savage who denies worship to the hero of Golgotha.’

‘But he was something more than a hero; he was the Son of God, wasn’t he?’

The elderly individual made no immediate answer; but, after a few more whiffs from his pipe, exclaimed, ‘Come, fill your glass! How do you advance with your translation of Tell’?

‘It is nearly finished; but I do not think I shall proceed with it; I begin to think the original somewhat dull.’

‘There you are wrong; it is the masterpiece of Schiller, the first of German poets.’

‘It may be so,’ said the youth. ‘But, pray excuse me, I do not think very highly of German poetry. I have lately been reading Shakespeare; and, when I turn from him to the Germans — even the best of them — they appear mere pigmies. You will pardon the liberty I perhaps take in saying so.’

‘I like that every one should have an opinion of his own,’ said the elderly individual; ‘and, what is more, declare it. Nothing displeases me more than to see people assenting to everything that they hear said; I at once come to the conclusion that they are either hypocrites, or there is nothing in them. But, with respect to Shakespeare, whom I have not read for thirty years, is he not rather given to bombast, “crackling bombast,” as I think I have said in one of my essays?’

‘I daresay he is,’ said the youth; ‘but I can’t help thinking him the greatest of all poets, not even excepting Homer. I would sooner have written that series of plays, founded on the fortunes of the House of Lancaster, than the Iliad itself. The events described are as lofty as those sung by Homer in his great work, and the characters brought upon the stage still more interesting. I think Hotspur as much of a hero as Hector, and young Henry more of a man than Achilles; and then there is the fat knight, the quintessence of fun, wit, and rascality. Falstaff is a creation beyond the genius even of Homer.’

‘You almost tempt me to read Shakespeare again — but the Germans?’

‘I don’t admire the Germans,’ said the youth, somewhat excited. ‘I don’t admire them in any point of view. I have heard my father say that, though good sharpshooters, they can’t be much depended upon as soldiers; and that old Sergeant Meredith told him that Minden would never have been won but for the two English regiments, who charged the French with fixed bayonets, and sent them to the right-about in double-quick time. With respect to poetry, setting Shakespeare and the English altogether aside, I think there is another Gothic nation, at least, entitled to dispute with them the palm. Indeed, to my mind, there is more genuine poetry contained in the old Danish book which I came so strangely by, than has been produced in Germany from the period of the Niebelungen lay to the present.’

‘Ah, the Koempe Viser?’ said the elderly individual, breathing forth an immense volume of smoke, which he had been collecting during the declamation of his young companion. ‘There are singular things in that book, I must confess; and I thank you for showing it to me, or rather your attempt at translation. I was struck with that ballad of Orm Ungarswayne, who goes by night to the grave-hill of his father to seek for counsel. And then, again, that strange melancholy Swayne Vonved, who roams about the world propounding people riddles; slaying those who cannot answer, and rewarding those who can with golden bracelets. Were it not for the violence, I should say that ballad has a philosophic tendency. I thank you for making me acquainted with the book, and I thank the Jew Mousha for making me acquainted with you.’

‘That Mousha was a strange customer,’ said the youth, collecting himself.

‘He WAS a strange customer,’ said the elder individual, breathing forth a gentle cloud. ‘I love to exercise hospitality to wandering strangers, especially foreigners; and when he came to this place, pretending to teach German and Hebrew, I asked him to dinner. After the first dinner, he asked me to lend him five pounds; I DID lend him five pounds. After the fifth dinner, he asked me to lend him fifty pounds; I did NOT lend him the fifty pounds.’

‘He was as ignorant of German as of Hebrew,’ said the youth; ‘on which account he was soon glad, I suppose, to transfer his pupil to some one else.’

‘He told me,’ said the elder individual, ‘that he intended to leave a town where he did not find sufficient encouragement; and, at the same time, expressed regret at being obliged to abandon a certain extraordinary pupil, for whom he had a particular regard. Now I, who have taught many people German from the love which I bear to it, and the desire which I feel that it should be generally diffused, instantly said that I should be happy to take his pupil off his hands, and afford him what instruction I could in German, for, as to Hebrew, I have never taken much interest in it. Such was the origin of our acquaintance. You have been an apt scholar. Of late, however, I have seen little of you — what is the reason?’

The youth made no answer.

‘You think, probably, that you have learned all I can teach you? Well, perhaps you are right.’

‘Not so, not so,’ said the young man eagerly; ‘before I knew you I knew nothing, and am still very ignorant; but of late my father’s health has been very much broken, and he requires attention; his spirits also have become low, which, to tell you the truth, he attributes to my misconduct. He says that I have imbibed all kinds of strange notions and doctrines, which will, in all probability, prove my ruin, both here and hereafter; which — which — ’

‘Ah! I understand,’ said the elder, with another calm whiff. ‘I have always had a kind of respect for your father, for there is something remarkable in his appearance, something heroic, and I would fain have cultivated his acquaintance; the feeling, however, has not been reciprocated. I met him, the other day, up the road, with his cane and dog, and saluted him; he did not return my salutation.’

‘He has certain opinions of his own,’ said the youth, ‘which are widely different from those which he has heard that you profess.’

‘I respect a man for entertaining an opinion of his own,’ said the elderly individual. ‘I hold certain opinions; but I should not respect an individual the more for adopting them. All I wish for is tolerance, which I myself endeavour to practise. I have always loved the truth, and sought it; if I have not found it, the greater my misfortune.’

‘Are you happy?’ said the young man.

‘Why, no! And, between ourselves, it is that which induces me to doubt sometimes the truth of my opinions. My life, upon the whole, I consider a failure; on which account, I would not counsel you, or any one, to follow my example too closely. It is getting late, and you had better be going, especially as your father, you say, is anxious about you. But, as we may never meet again, I think there are three things which I may safely venture to press upon you. The first is, that the decencies and gentlenesses should never be lost sight of, as the practice of the decencies and gentlenesses is at all times compatible with independence of thought and action. The second thing which I would wish to impress upon you is, that there is always some eye upon us; and that it is impossible to keep anything we do from the world, as it will assuredly be divulged by somebody as soon as it is his interest to do so. The third thing which I would wish to press upon you — ’

‘Yes,’ said the youth, eagerly bending forward.

‘Is — ’ and here the elderly individual laid down his pipe upon the table — ‘that it will be as well to go on improving yourself in German!’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/borrow/george/lavengro/chapter23.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32