Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 15

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HOW do you like Kerkering?" inquired Olympia one day when he did not come to the lesson.

"As you do," retorted Spinoza.

"You build too much on our habit of taking the words out of each other's mouths," answered Olympia. "What fault do you find with him?"

Spinoza flushed red at having to answer this, partly because he had silently extended similar blame to Olympia, partly because he feared Olympia might misconstrue his words as jealousy. These contradictory thoughts flashed through his mind in a second, and after a short pause Olympia continued:

"Kerkering is thoroughly good-hearted; his loquacity is the national failing of the Hanseatic towns of Germany."

"Now I see," replied Spinoza, "that the Jews are not alone in having the fate to be judged in a body by the first and best individual that chance throws in the way. But consider the self-possession and calm judgment of ethical subjects that characterize our friend Oldenburg. Why not take him as a type of the Hanseatic townsmen?"

"You are right," replied Olympia; "but you make such progress with me that I shall never allow myself to judge in future. I am too easily influenced by surrounding circumstances, and you comprehend the general view so acutely."

"Do not call it masculine vanity," responded Spinoza; "but you confirm what I have observed with my sisters and their friends; women seldom seem to feel pleasure in mere rectitude; they do not judge of the deed but the doer, and of him with either partiality or prejudice."

"Agreed. Well, we are not in the world to philosophize. You agree with me there; you too do not like this jingling prattle, with its cut and dried ready-coined thoughts; if these pennies are always in circulation they become worn out, lose all freshness in the impression, and retain only nominal value. So it is with Kerkering, he is wanting in true inner worth."

"He has his compensations," said Spinoza, "he has all the more jingle."

Olympia seemed to have no inclination to pursue this turn of the conversation, for she continued with her eyes sparkling strangely:

"Our friend Oldenburg always wants me to try my hand at poetry like my namesake Olympia Morata; but I must confess that I pity poets almost as much as I respect them, because they both can and must lay bare their deepest feelings to the eyes of the whole world. It seems to me that if I were to express to the world my inner life, what constitutes the core of my being, I should no longer be my own; the world would have me, I should remain but a shadow of what I had resigned, and must suddenly vanish away. So I prefer the ancient philosophers' way, who never made their own minds the subject of discussion; they had an esoteric doctrine expressed only in symbols, never in words."

"With the idea with which you started," said Spinoza, "I am in perfect harmony. If I were a theologian I might make an allegory of it: how the high-priest of the temple of Jerusalem, on peril of his life, entered the Holy of Holies but once a year, declaring the unutterable name of Jehovah therefrom, while all the people without fell on their faces. By a little 'pious fraud' we might easily substitute the idea which you have otherwise expressed; but I am not fond of such interpretations, they are usually self-deception or worse."

"Do not take the thing so barbarously literally; that is a glorious interpretation; but once, when the divine unites itself with the human, the Holy of Holies of the temple of the heart may be opened, and the unutterable incorporate itself in words. Why, it would be a good symbol, too, for many situations in life; in daily intercourse those who are near and dear to each other keep their isolated niches, which then would open, and would forebode what lies so deep in the heart and cannot be expressed."

"Forebodings, even between the most confidential, are often illusions,"

"No, not in this case, indeed not. Ah! it is so heavenly to feel, dispensing with words, yet with undoubting confidence, that the very depths of our souls, which no eye can penetrate, are in friendly communication with another's. What can be better than, in the thousand varying circumstances of life, to look into other eyes and know that there every feeling exists with equal power, and in unchangeable harmony with your own?"

With what deep unutterable yearning Olympia gazed at Spinoza; a rich color flushed her cheeks, her lips trembled with excitement, her whole attitude was one of abandonment.

Spinoza regarded her with unmoved countenance. Could a man of such fine feeling, sensitive to the slightest influences of thought and imagination, could he not see that here was a soul yearning for conscious communion with his? Had he no feeling for her? Or did he by force of will repress an inclination that could only bring trouble to both himself and Olympia?

"The unutterable of which you speak," said Spinoza after a painful pause, "I see more clearly day by day must remain such with our thoughts of God and nature; we are never more than half understood, or are misunderstood."

Clearly he had comprehended Olympia, and wished to turn her thoughts into another channel.

"I shall not be able to come here to-morrow," continued Spinoza; "my sister is to be married to young Casseres. May she be truly happy! She understands me best; we often converse together half the night through."

This digression had not the desired effect.

"You are more fortunate than I," replied Olympia. "I am so lonely. I never knew my mother. You cannot imagine what it is for a girl never to have known her mother. I have often thought how very different I should have been if I had not grown up among men, and been educated almost entirely by my father. That dreadful war robbed me of my only brother; my cousin Cecilia, who has stayed here during my father's absence, was his betrothed. Ah! you would have been a dear friend to Cornelius, perhaps more so than to me."

"Certainly not that—but it is odd you should both have such heathenish names."

Did Olympia not agree to this, or did she really not hear him? Anyhow she continued in the same tone:

"I have often thought that, if one of us must die, would it not have been better if I had died? Cornelius could have been of use to and enjoyed the world; but I—what should I live for?"

"To feel joy in yourself, to illuminate and charm with your intellect and graceful presence," answered Spinoza, inwardly blaming himself, thinking he had committed a fault in speaking thus.

"You jest," Olympia answered bitterly. "Once, I confess, I was vain enough to think so, but I have learned to see that nature should have sent me into the world under another mask, and at another period."

"Pray, do not belie yourself," interrupted Spinoza. "I am sure you think better of the world and of yourself. I dare not praise you, you say so often I have no eye for beauty."

Cecilia entered the room at this point, and relieved them both from a painful conversation. Spinoza soon after took his departure. He went home with a peaceful sense of self-conquest, for he thought that he had suppressed, with masculine power, the first buds of Olympia's inclination for him. A certain secret triumph he could not repress, that he should without solicitation be beloved by such a woman as Olympia.

Olympia was out of temper the whole evening, and as she lay on her bed she bedewed the pillows with bitter tears.

"Has it gone so far with thee," she said to herself, "that thou throwest thyself on any one's neck, and he stands with straightened arms!"

She sighed deeply, and Cecilia often inquired what was the matter with her; she gave no answer, and pretended to be no longer awake, but in fact could find no rest.

"He is a heartless, selfish man, with a frosty intellect!"

No, she could not say that, she could not think so of him. His youthful modesty, his invincible truthfulness, and above all, the unmistakable signs of good will and love for humanity in his countenance, the tender smile of his loving mouth, and the glowing depths of his dark eyes! No, she could not make him a caricature.

Singing and carolling she arose next morning, and as she stood before the glass her looks said:

"No, it has not come to that yet, and were he a god, and thought himself raised above all human woes, my honor and self-respect require that he should kneel to me; and then, having won him, I will see how to begin."

With gay self-satisfaction she continued her toilette.

Not with such gayety did Miriam de Spinoza don her wedding garments, for religious custom had here ordained a strange and harsh contrast. Beneath the glistening bridal robes the bride must wear the sheet in which she will one day be laid in the bosom of the earth, her winding-sheet; the lovely ringlets of Miriam from this day forward would be hidden beneath the cap and veil; the long prayer of the Day of Atonement with its list of sins must be repeated; neither meat nor drink must pass her lips till, beneath the wedding canopy, her bridegroom pass her the love-draught in the wedding-goblet, allowing her to drink thereof, then shattering the glass against the wall.

The family feast—since his banishment among all nations the only one of joy remaining to the Jew—aroused to the full his inwardly fostered yearnings. The agitation which the wedding preliminaries and the wedding itself caused in all hearts was now dissipated in unchecked gayety. The married pair pressed each other's hands and told each other that, in view of the newly consummated union, all so long suppressed would receive new life. Youths and maidens looked glowingly at one another; the one became quieter, the other more openly animated to hide their emotions. A tearful thrill was in every voice of the assembly, and yet it sounded as harmony to each, and as they looked from one to the other each read joy in the other's countenance. At table all rejoiced in the affectionate meeting and suitable union, all expressed their joy, and drank to each other's health, and in this expression of their rejoicing it grew yet greater. All praised the bride and bridegroom, their beauty, their good-heartedness, their future happiness, and found a reflection of all these in themselves.

Baruch, in the midst of this community of feeling and rejoicing, was but the more sad and lonely. Was it because he could not help thinking of Olympia that he felt a stranger, or because he was so far removed from the present company in point of thought?

The meal was over, the cigars puffed cheerily, the company grouped themselves according to their liking, and the hum of voices became still more animated as it was heightened by an occasional laugh.

Baruch remained seated at the table; his face was flushed, for he had imbibed no less than the others of the "sweet fire." He dreamily gazed into the bottom of his glass.

Chisdai, who had come to Miriam's wedding feast to conceal the fact of his former wooing, approached Baruch with Ephraim Cardoso. "Wine that rejoices the heart of man" (Ps. civ. 15) he recited, waving his glass with jovial emphasis.

"That is probably the reason why the Talmudists wished men to have no vivifying wine," replied Baruch, "but weakened it by the admixture of water." Baruch addressed the words to his glass, but Chisdai must have overheard them.

"Yes," said Ephraim, as he drank to Baruch, "our forefathers knew how to live. Does not the Talmud say, 'The Spirit of God only rests on man in gladsomeness'? I was once by when the late Professor Barläus said to Rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel, 'Only the Greeks, not even the Romans, understood how really to enjoy life; the Jews were always too much engrossed in fathoming what God was, what he was like, and how he should be served. That they had been fairly successful in, but meanwhile all enjoyment of earthly life had gone to the ground.' He should come here now and see whether we cannot be jovial good fellows in the fear of God."

"Well met, Ephraim," said Baruch, and drank to him kindly.

"And even if what Christ said was true," said Chisdai, as he struck the table, "we could give up all pleasures, ay, even life itself, for the truth that we alone possess, the revelation of the real nature of God. We alone are free from error and deception."

"Ho, ho!" laughed Baruch, "you take too much in your mouth. Do you not know that in the tractate Sabbath" (and he added, according to custom of the Scribes, page 32) "it tells of the Talmudist Rabbi Samuel, who would never go over a bridge unless accompanied by some one of another faith, because Satan could not prevail against two religions?"

Chisdai stroked his young beard and inquired:

"You are now studying the Greeks and Romans; tell me, do you not find all, and much more than all, in Judaism that the learning of other nations can show?"

"Look at the thing aright," answered Baruch; "there is as much and as little of mere truth in the Bible as in other books. Look at it impartially and not with Jewish prejudice. Is not the human soul sometimes spoken of as contained in blood, sometimes in breath? Ay, and moreover, is God an immaterial being in all passages of the Bible? I know the Bible is said to tell people the literal truth; but consider: God is represented as filling space, for he appears on Mount Sinai in clouds and fire; in the vision of Moses his foot was of white sapphire. And that is the highest ideal of God! There are sublime and pure ideas of God to be found in the Bible; but how he is in and about things, how he creates and maintains, that seems to me to be taken for granted, never proved. And even that on which we lay most stress—the conception of him as the one only Godhead—is not sufficing, and can only be used figuratively, because we cannot form any idea of or expression for the omnipresence of God."

Chisdai clenched his fists under the table. "And the prophets," he asked, "have they all known nothing aright?"

"The prophets," answered Spinoza, "were great and upright men, endowed with a spirit that strove to comprehend the infinite whole; men to whose hearts not only the fate of Israel but that of the whole world lay near. As Isaiah says (xvi. 9), 'Therefore I will bewail with the weeping of Jazer,' but beyond that they were men as we are, ay, in many things more ignorant than we are, for in many cases they did not know the first principles of the laws of nature. If the Spirit of God spoke directly by them how could they remain ignorant of such simple things?"

He spoke yet further on these subjects, and in the details he adduced he became yet sharper and more decided. Chisdai remained quiet and cold, but ground his teeth. When he had heard enough he went away with Ephraim without saying a word.

Spinoza remained at the table alone; he would not rise; all seemed so uncongenial and repulsive to him. He had just drunk off a glass of wine to distract his thoughts when his sister Miriam approached him.

"What have you done?" she said. "That spiteful Chisdai is breathing fire and fury against you. I was standing by Chaje in the kitchen, and reminding her how she once dreamed of my wedding, when I heard Chisdai cry, 'Cursed be the air breathed by this shameless one! You have heard, Ephraim, how Baruch has slandered God and the prophets. Oh, that no hand will stretch from heaven to tear his lying tongue from his jaws! But I will not lay my head down to rest until he is swept from the earth.' Ephraim tried to pacify him. 'It is well you were by,' continued Chisdai. 'One witness is not evidence; you must go with me before the Sanhedrim; we will accuse him; he must be laid under the great ban; I will yet set my foot on his neck.' Ephraim said he would not witness against you—he had heard nothing. 'So you will not!' cried Chisdai, and seized him by the arm; 'then you must swear you heard nothing, and if you do you may go to the devil with him.' I heard it all, for they did not notice me. But, dear brother, you bring the most fearful misfortunes on us. I would rather die now, on my wedding day, than live through this."

Spinoza pacified his sister, but he could not pacify himself.

"How great you thought yourself yesterday," he said to himself, "when you told Olympia that our conceptions of highest things should remain unexpressed in the soul. Now you have proved yourself." The whole day he remained sunk in grief.

Chisdai's efforts had not the wished-for result. Every one had regard for Benjamin Spinoza and his influential connections; and there were only words not deeds adduced against Baruch. Chisdai was obliged to defer his undertaking to a more favorable opportunity; he could easily wait that length of time, for soon after Miriam's wedding Baruch's father again lay dangerously ill. No one would inform the sick man of the rumor that attached to his son.