At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, by Anatole France

Chapter 13

Taken by M. d’Asterac to the Isle of Swans I listen to his Discourse on Creation and Salamanders.

I really do not know how it was possible to tear myself out of Catherine’s arms. But it is a fact that in jumping out of her carriage I nearly fell on M. d’Asterac, whose tall figure leant against a tree on the roadside. Courteously I saluted him and showed the surprise I felt at this pleasant encounter.

“Chance,” he said, “lessens as knowledge grows; for me it is suppressed. I knew, my son, that I had to meet you at this place. It is necessary for me to have a conversation with you already too long delayed. Let’s go, if you please, in quest of solitude and quietness required by what I wish to tell you. Do not become anxious. The mysteries I desire to unveil before you are sublime, it is true, but pleasant also.”

Having so spoken he conducted me to the bank of the Seine opposite the Isle of Swans, which rose out of the middle of the river like a ship built of foliage. There he made a sign to a ferryman, whose boat brought us quickly to the green isle, frequented only by invalids, who on fine days play there at bowls and drink their pint of wine. Night lit her first stars in the sky and lent a humming voice to the myriads of insects in the grass. The isle was deserted. M. d’Asterac sat down on a wooden bench at the end of an alley of walnut-trees, invited me to sit close to him and spoke:

“There are three sorts of people, my son, from whom the philosopher has to hide his secrets. They are princes, because it would be imprudent to enlarge their power; the ambitious, whose pitiless genius must not be armed, and the debauchees, who would find in hidden sciences the means to satiate their evil passions. But I can talk freely to you, who are neither debauched — for I quite overlook the error you nearly gave way to in the arms of yonder girl — nor ambitious, having lived, till recently, contented to turn the paternal spit. Therefore I may disclose to you the hidden laws of the universe.

“It must not be believed that life is limited by narrow rules wherein it is manifested to the eyes of the profane. When they teach that creation’s object and end was man, your theologians and your philosophers reason like the multiped of Versailles or the Tuileries, who believe the humidity of the cellars is made for their special use and that the remainder of the castle is uninhabitable. The system of the world, as Canon Copernicus taught in the last century, following the doctrines of Aristarchus of Samos and Pythagorean philosophers, is doubtless known to you, as there have actually been prepared some compendiums of them for the urchins of village schools and dialogues abstracted from them for the use of town children. You have seen at my house a kind of machine which shows it distinctly by means of a kind of clockwork.

“Raise your eyes, my son, and you’ll see over your head David’s chariot, drawn by Mizar and her two illustrious companions, circling round the pole; Arcturus, Vega of the Lyre, the Virgin’s Sword, the Crown of Ariadne and its charming pearls. Those are suns. One single look on that world will make it clear to you that the whole of creation is the work of fire and that life, in its finest forms, is fed on flames.

“And what are the planets? Drops of a mixture of mind, a little mire and plenty of moisture. Behold the august choir of the stars, the assembly of the suns; they equal or excel ours in magnitude and power and after I have shown you on a clear winter’s night, through my telescope, Sirius, your eyes and soul will be dazzled.

“Do you in good faith believe that Sirius Altair, Regulus, Aldebaran, all these suns are luminary only? Do you believe that this old Phoebus, who incessantly forces into space, wherein we are swimming, his inordinate surge of heat and light, has no other function but to light the earth and some other paltry and imperceptible planets? What a candle! A million times greater than the dwelling.

“I have to present to you first of all the idea that the universe is composed of suns and that the planets which may be in it are less than nothing. But as I foresee your wish to make an objection, I’ll reply to it beforehand. The suns, you want to say, put themselves out in the course of centuries and by that also change into mud. No! is my reply; they keep themselves alive by means of comets which they attract and which fall on them. It is the dwelling of true life. The planets and this our earth are but the abode of ghosts. Such are the verities of which I have to convince you.

“Now that you understand, my son, that fire is the principal element, you’ll easier comprehend what I wish to teach you and which is of greater importance than anything you may have learned up to now, or was even known to Erasmus, Turnebe or Scaliger. I do not speak of theologians like Quesnel or Bossuet who, between ourselves, I consider as the lees of human spirit, and who have no better understanding than a simple captain of guards. Don’t let us hamper ourselves by despising those brains comparable in volume, as well as in construction, to wrens’ eggs, but let us at once enter fully into the object of our conference.

“Whilst those earth-born creatures do not surpass a degree of perfection which, by beauty of form, has been attained by Antinoüs and by Madame de Parabère, and at which they alone have arrived by the faculty known to Democritus and myself; the beings formed by fire enjoy a wisdom and an intelligence of which we cannot possibly conceive the limit.

“Such is, my son, the nature of the glorious children of the suns; they know the laws of the universe just as we know the rules of chess, and the course of the stars does not trouble them any more than the moves on the chessboard of the king and the other men trouble us. Those genii create worlds in such spaces of the infinite where none at present exist, and organise them at their will. It distracts them momentarily from their principal business, which is to unite among themselves in unspeakable love. Only last night I turned my telescope on the Sign of the Virgin and saw on it a far-away vortex of light. No doubt, my son, that was the still unfinished work of one of those fire beings.

“Truly the universe has no other origin; far from being the effect of a single will, it is the result of the sublime freaks of a great many genii, recreating themselves by working on it each in his own turn and on his own side. That’s what explains the diversity, the splendour and the imperfection. For the force and foresight of those genii, immense as they were, had still their limits. I should deceive you were I to say that a man, philosopher or magician, can have familiar intercourse with them.

“None of them gave me a direct manifestation of himself, and what I tell you of them is known to me by induction only, and by hearsay. Certain as their existence is, I should not attempt to describe their habits and their character. It is necessary to know when not to know, my son, and I make it a point not to bring forward other than perfectly well-observed facts.

“Let those genii, or rather demiurguses, abide in their glory, and let us treat of illustrious beings who stand nearer to us. Here, my son, is where one has to lend an open ear.

“If in speaking of the planets I have given vent to a feeling of disdain, it was that I only took into consideration the solid surface and shell of those little balls or tops and the animals who sadly crawl on them. I should have spoken in quite another tone, if in my mind I had included with the planets the air and the vapours wherein they are enveloped. For the air is an element in no way of lesser nobility than fire, whence it follows that the dignity and importance of the planets is in the air wherein they are bathed. Those clouds, soft vapours, puffs of wind, transparencies, blue waves, moving islets of purple and gold which pass over our heads, are the abode of adorable people. They are called Sylphs and Salamanders, and are creatures infinitely amiable and lovely. It is possible for us, and convenient, to form with them unions, the delights of which are hardly conceivable.

“The Salamanders are such that in comparison with them the prettiest person at court or in the city is but an ugly woman. They surrender themselves willingly to philosophers. Doubtless you have heard of that marvel by which M. Descartes was accompanied on his travels. Some say that she was a natural daughter of his, that he took with him everywhere; others think that she was an automaton manufactured with inimitable art. As a fact she was a Salamander, whom that clever man had taken as his lady love. He never left her. During a voyage in the Dutch Sea he took her with him on board, shut in a box of precious wood lined with the softest satin. The form of this box, and the precaution with which M. Descartes took care of it, drew the attention of the captain, who, while the philosopher was asleep, raised the cover and discovered the Salamander. This ignorant, rude fellow imagined that such a marvellous creature was the creation of the devil. In his dismay, he threw it into the sea. But you will easily believe that the beautiful little person was not drowned, and that it was no trouble to her to rejoin M. Descartes. She remained faithful to him during his natural life, and when he died she left this world never more to return.

The shape of this box drew the attention of the captain

“I give you this example, chosen from many, to make you acquainted with the loves between philosophers and Salamanders. These loves are too sublime to be in need of contracts, and you will agree that the ridiculous display usual at human weddings would be entirely out of place at such unions. It would be indeed fine, if a proctor in a wig and a fat priest put their noses together over it! That sort of gentleman is good only to join vulgar man to woman. The marriages of Salamanders and sages have witnesses more august. The aerial people celebrate them in ships which, moved by celestial breath, glide, their sterns crowned with roses, to the sound of harps, on invisible waves. But do not believe that, not being entered in a dirty register in a shabby vestry, they would be of little solidity and could be easily torn asunder. They have for guarantors the spirits who gambol on the clouds whence flashes the lightning and roars the thunder. I reveal matters to you, my son, which be useful to you to know, because I conclude from certain indications that your destiny is the bed of a Salamander.”

“Alas! monsieur,” I exclaimed, “this destiny alarms me, and I have nearly as many scruples as the Dutch captain who threw the lady love of Descartes into the sea. I cannot help thinking these aerial dames are demons. I should fear to lose my soul with them, for after all, sir, such marriages are against nature and in opposition to the divine law. Oh! why is not M. Jérôme Coignard, my good tutor, present to hear you! I am sure he would strengthen me by his valuable arguments against the delights of your Salamanders, sir, and your eloquence.”

“The Abbé Coignard,” said M. d’Asterac, “is an admirable translator of Greek. But you must not want anything from him beyond his books. He has no philosophy. As far as you are in question, my son, you reason with the infirmity of ignorance, and the weakness of your arguments afflicts me. You say, those unions are against nature. What do you know about it? What means have you to gain knowledge of it? How is it possible to make a distinction between what is natural and what is not? Is the universal Isis known enough to discriminate between what is assisting her and what thwarts her? But to speak better still; nothing thwarts her and everything assists her, because nothing exists which does not enter into the functions of her organs and does not follow the numberless attitudes of her body. I beg of you to say, whence could enemies come to offend her? Nothing acts against her nor outside of her; the forces which seem to fight against her are nothing else but movements of her own life.

“The ignorant alone have assurance enough to decide if an action is natural or not. Let’s admit their illusions for a moment and their prejudice, and let us feign to recognise the possibility of committing acts against nature. These acts, are they for that reason worse and condemnable? On this point I cannot but remember the vulgar opinion of moralists who represent virtue as an effort over instincts, as an enterprise on the inclinations we carry within us, as a fight with the original man. They own themselves that virtue is against nature, and going further on that opinion they cannot condemn an action of whatever kind, for what is common to it and virtue alike.

“I have made this digression, my son, to call your attention to the contemptible lightness of your reason. I should offend you by believing you still have any doubts of the innocence of the sensual intercourse men may have with Salamanders. Know then, now, that such marriages, far from being interdicted by religious law, are commanded by that law to the exclusion of all others I will give you some conclusive evidence for it.”

He stopped talking, took his snuff-box from his pocket, and filled his nose with a pinch.

The night was densely dark. The moon shed her limpid light over the river, and tremblingly enlaced with the reflections of the street lamps. The flying ephemerides enveloped us like a vaporous eddy. The shrill voice of insects rose into the world’s silence. Such a sweetness fell slowly down from the sky that it seemed as if milk had been mixed with the sparkling of the stars.

M. d’Asterac spoke again:

“The Bible, my son, and especially the books of Moses, contains grand and useful verities. Such an opinion may appear absurd and unreasonable, in consequence of the treatment the theologians have inflicted on what they call the Scriptures, and of which they have made, by means of their commentaries, explications, and meditations, a manual of errors, a library of absurdities, a magazine of foolery, a cabinet of lies, a gallery of stupidities, a lyceum of ignorance, a museum of silliness, and a repository of human imbecility and wickedness. Know, my son, that at its origin it was a temple filled with celestial radiance.

“I have been fortunate enough to re-establish it in its primal splendour. Truth obliges me to acknowledge that Mosaïde has very much assisted me with his deep comprehension of the language and the alphabet of the Hebrews. But let us not lose sight of our principal subject. Be informed from the outset, my son, that the sense of the Bible is figurative, and that the capital error of the theologians was to take it literally, whereas it is to be understood as symbolical. Follow this truth in the whole course of my discourse.

“When Demiurge, who is commonly called Jehovah, and by many more names, as all terms expressing quality or quantity are generally applied to him, had, I do not want to say ‘created’ the world — for such would be an absurdity — but had laid out a small corner of the universe, as a dwelling place for Adam and Eve, there were some subtle creatures in space, which Jehovah had not formed, was not capable of forming. They were the work of several other demiurges, older and more skillful. His craft was not beyond that of a very clever potter, capable of kneading clay beings in the manner of pots, such as we men are now. What I say is not to slight him, because such work is still much beyond human power.

“But it became necessary to brand the inferior character of the work of the seven days. Jehovah worked, not in and with fire, which alone gives birth to the masterpieces of life, but with mud, out of which he could not produce other than the work of a clever ceramist. We are nothing, my son, but animated earthenware. Jehovah is not to be reproached for having illusions over the quality of his work. If he did find it well done in the first moment, and in the ardour of composition, he did not take long to recognise his error, the Bible is full of expressions of his discontent, which often becomes ill-humour, sometimes actual rage.

“Never has artisan treated the objects of his industry with more disgust and aversion. He intended to destroy them, and, in fact, did drown the larger part. This deluge, the memory of which has been conserved by Jews, Greeks and Chinese alike, gave a last deception to the unhappy demiurges, who, aware of the uselessness and ridiculousness of such violence, became discouraged, and fell into an apathy, the progress of which has not been stopped from Noah’s time to our present day, wherein it is extreme. But I see I have advanced too far. The inconvenience of these extensive subjects is the impossibility of remaining within their limits.

“Our mind thrown into them resembles yonder sons of the suns, who cross the whole of the universe in one single jump.

“Let us return to the earthly paradise, wherein the demiurge had placed the two vases formed by his hand, Adam and Eve. They did not live there alone, between the animals and plants. The spirits of the air, created by the demiurges of the fire, were flowing over and looking at them with a curiosity mixed with sympathy and pity. It was exactly as Jehovah had foreseen. Let us hasten to say, to his praise, he had relied on the genii of the fire, to whom we may now give their true names of Elves and Salamanders, to ameliorate and perfect his clay figures. In his prudence he may have said to himself: ‘My Adam and my Eve, opaque and cemented in clay, are in want of air and light. I have failed to give them wings. But united to Elves and Salamanders, the creations of a demiurge more powerful and more subtle than myself, they will give birth to children, equally originated by light and clay, and who in their turn will have children still more luminous than themselves, till in the end their issue will be equal in beauty to the sons and daughters of air and fire.’

“It must be said he had neglected nothing to attract the eyes of Sylphs and Salamanders in forming Adam and Eve. He had modelled the woman in form of an amphora, with a harmony of curved lines quite sufficient to make him recognised as the prince of geometers, and he succeeded in amending the coarseness of the material by the magnificent charm of the form. For modelling Adam he made use of a less caressing, but more energetic, hand, forming his body with such order, and in such perfect proportions, that, applied later by the Greeks to their architecture, those same ordinances and measures made the beauty of the temples.

“You see, my son, that Jehovah applied his best means to render his creatures worthy of the aerial kisses he expected for them. I shall not insist on the care he took with a view of making these unions prolific. The harmony between the sexes is an ample proof of his wisdom in this regard. And surely at the outset he had reason to congratulate himself on his shrewdness and ability.

“I have said the Sylphs and Salamanders looked on Adam and Eve with that curiosity, sympathy and tenderness which are the first ingredients of love. They approached them, and fell into the clever traps Jehovah had disposed and spread intentionally in the body and on the belly of these two amphoræ.

“The first man and the first woman enjoyed during centuries the delicious embraces of the genii of the air, which conserved them in eternal youth.

“Such was their lot, and such could still be ours. Why was it that the parents of the human species, fatigued by celestial luxury, should try to find criminal enjoyments with one another?

Such was their lot, such would be ours

“But what could you expect, my son? Kneaded of clay they had a taste for mud. Alas! they became acquainted with one another in the same way as they had known the genii.

“And that was what the demiurge had expressly forbidden them. Afraid, and with reason, that they would produce between them children as clumsy as themselves, terrestrial and heavy, he forbade them, under severest penalties, to approach each other. Such is the sense of Eve’s words: ‘But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it lest ye die.’ For you well understand, my son, that the apple which tempted wretched Eve was not the fruit of an apple-tree; that was an allegory the sense of which I have explained to you. Although imperfect, and sometimes violent and capricious, Jehovah was too intelligent a demiurge to be offended about an apple or a pomegranate. One has to be a bishop or a Capuchin to support such extravagant imaginations. And the proof that the apple was what I said, is that Eve was stricken by a punishment suitable to her fault. She had not been told ‘You will digest laboriously,’ but it was said to her ‘You’ll give birth in pain’; for logic sake what connection can be established, I beg of you, between an apple and difficult confinement? On the other hand, the suffering is correctly applied if the fault has been such as I showed you.

“That is, my son, the truthful explanation of original sin. It will teach you your duty, which is, to keep away from women. To follow this bent is fatal. All children born by those means are imbecile and miserable.”

I was stupefied, and exclaimed:

“But, sir, could children be born in another way?”

“Happily, some are born in another way,” was his reply; “a considerable number by the union of men with genii of the air. And such are intelligent and beautiful. By such means were born the giants of whom Hesiod and Moses speak. Thus also Pythagoras was born, to whose bodily formation his mother, a Salamander, had contributed a thigh of pure gold. Such also Alexander the Great, said to have been the son of Olympias and a serpent; Scipio Africanus, Aristomenes of Messina, Julius Caesar, Porphyry, the Emperor Julian, who re-established the oath of fire abolished by Constantine the Apostate, Merlin the enchanter, child of a Sylph and a nun daughter of Charlemagne; Saint Thomas Aquinas, Paracelsus and, but recently, M. Van Helmont.”

I promised M. d’Asterac, as such were the facts, that I would be willing to lend myself to the friendship of a Salamander, if one were to be found obliging enough to wish for me. He assured me that I should meet not one but a score or more, between whom I should have my free choice. And less by longing for the adventure than to give him pleasure, I asked the philosopher how it is possible to enter into communication with these aerial persons.

“Nothing easier,” he replied. “All that’s wanted is a glass ball, the use of which I’ll explain to you. I have always at home a pretty good number of such balls, and in my study I’ll very soon give you all necessary enlightenment. But, for today, my son, enough is said of it.”

He rose, and walked in the direction of the ferry, where the ferryman waited for us, lying outstretched on his back and snoring at the moon. As soon as we had reached the opposite shore he quickly went on, and was soon lost in the darkness.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54