Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 22

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KERKERING had clasped Olympia's hand, and prayed Cecilia in a jesting tone to be his godmother if he became a Catholic. He did not let loose her hand when Spinoza entered, in spite of Olympia's efforts. Spinoza stared in astonishment. Olympia blushed, she snuffed the candle, and, during the short interval of darkness, quite recovered herself, and gave Spinoza a lecture on his prolonged absence.

"I cannot understand," she said, "how a man of your age can immure himself so in a cell. Frau Gertrui told me that you had not been down stairs for the last ten days, and that you had, moreover, used a pound and a half of oil in your nightly studies. You might become a monk or a hermit without any self-sacrifice. It is a pity you are not a Catholic."

"I regret it equally; to put off the old man is easy enough, but to draw the old on anew is difficult."

Olympia was silent. Kerkering looked puzzled; he used all his powers of mind, but could not rightly understand what lay behind these words.

"It is provoking," Olympia began again, "that we women must perpetually go in leading-strings, and never dare manage to be free. I cannot help wishing to see the room for one minute that makes the whole world unnecessary to you. Take care; I have settled it all with Gertrui. Next time you are not at home I shall come and examine everything. I must find the arcanum that can keep you so much to itself. You must have something extraordinary there; day by day polishing glass and studying, studying and polishing glass. Always alone, not even an organ or a lute near you; no one could endure it. But I shall find out the secret soon."

"This time it is my turn," answered Spinoza, "to deny you a sixth sense. If you seek through everything you are certain to overlook a companion whose heart glows for me, and whose warm breath I inhale with pleasure. But alas! this faithful companion is evanescent and frail, like all things earthly."

"Oh, you fanatical and godless smoker! But in your place I would really leave off smoking. It is only an artificial taste, an imaginary pleasure."

"After music nothing refreshes a weary spirit like a pipe of the American weed. Like the waves of sound in music here the waves of smoke float around us and smooth over all that is ruffled in us. When I easily and silently take a long puff at the pipe, keep the ethereal draught a moment in my mouth, and then let it stream out in a light breath, it flatters and soothes my mouth and lips as a soft melody does my ears. You know well enough the ill effect of that damp cold grey on grey painted weather. That, if I may so call it, prickly feeling of discomfort, which then pervades our whole being, I can chase that away much better when I am surrounded by a cloud of tobacco smoke. I make myself independent of the influence of the weather, and when I watch the fleeting play of the smoke wreaths my mind gains in breadth and I feel myself so delightfully peaceful and enlightened."

"Glorious!" cried Olympia; "now, for once, I see you as an enthusiast."

"I must become enthusiastic to make you understand the worth of anything that you cannot try for yourself."

"What a pity it is you never knew my Uncle Boniface."

"Let the dead rest in peace," said Cecilia, who sat reading in the window. "What do you want with our blessed uncle?"

"It does not matter disturbing his rest a little in the other world; he had too much rest in this life and was always ill in consequence."

Cecilia did not answer, but during the ensuing conversation she retired unnoticed into the next room.

"Was your uncle, too, a priest of tobacco's vestal fire?" asked Spinoza.

"I remember quite well now a sermon he preached five years ago in the church of St. John. He was a zealous opponent of tobacco in both forms. 'They have noses, and smell not,' he cried with the psalmist from the pulpit; 'they have mouths, and taste not.'"

"'And speak not,' saith David," corrected Spinoza; but Olympia continued undisturbed:

"They offer their bodies to Moloch and Baal. Each one from early morning smokes his calf's, ox's, or sheep's tongue, and the vapor rises from his mouth like the reek of a sacrifice. That is why their tongues are dry when they should pray an 'Ave Maria.' They hourly chew the leaves of this plant of sin, as if it were heavenly manna that tasted like coriander in honeycomb; and in a while they tickle their noses with the stinking weed that Beelzebub sowed so that they can no longer smell the delightful odor of church incense. Woe! woe unto this Babylon, this Sodom and Gomorrah! But one day they will find their true reward, and will smoke merrily in hell, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth; and those who have tickled their noses will be salted with the leviathan and the other monsters in the depths of the lower world. The Lord preserve you from such chastisement. Amen!"

"Bravo!" cried Spinoza. "Pathos suits you excellently; you are a living concordance to the Bible."

"Many thanks," said Olympia roguishly; "do you agree with me that the priests are so zealous against tobacco because they are afraid of Ancyra?"

"Not quite, for I think that they will for long and long enough preach the same thing from the pulpit, while the domines themselves, between each of their saving phrases, will take a pinch of snuff from the gilt box on the reading desk of their pulpit. My Peter Blyning always says, when he takes a pinch fasting in the morning, that it is his spiritual breakfast."

"It occurs to me now," said Olympia: "do you know the horrible treatise of the wise King Solomon?"

"I know all the writings of Solomon, but I hope you do not call the 'Preacher,' or the 'Song of Songs,' horrible, and wish to banish it from the canon like the old Fathers of the Church!"

"Oh, no! I mean something quite different. My Solomon, indeed, the Presbyterians now leave to roast and steam in hell for punishment of his prophetic zeal; what grimaces he will make! I will be with you again, gentlemen, in a minute." She took a light from the table and went out, singing as she went.

"What a wonderful, enigmatical girl!" said Kerkering, as he sat near Spinoza in the darkness. "She is as learned as if she had ten professors in her pocket. When I hear her talk like that I feel as if—as if—I don't know what; I would rather be quite still, and only wish that she would go on talking forever. I cannot keep up with her; you are the man for her."

"Are you of that opinion too?" responded Spinoza, and a light broke in on the darkness to Kerkering.

"'The people that walked in darkness saw a great light!' How does pathos suit me, Herr von Spinoza?" said Olympia, entering with a large book under her arm. "Please excuse me. I did not see that Cecilia had gone away, or I would not have left you in darkness."

"A double light appears with you," said Kerkering, perhaps referring to Spinoza's late disclosure. Olympia thanked him and opened the book.

"I think I have found something in which I can still be your teacher. Know then, that King James I. of England was called Solomon the Wise, and here is his horrible canonical treatise, 'De Peccato Mortali Fumandi Nicotianam.' Are you ready for death, Herr von Spinoza?"

She then read a passage from the book.

"If the pious king had only known," said Olympia, "that now a man would rule over England, named Oliver Cromwell, who carries his Bible in his sword-hilt, and yet commits the deadly sin of smoking cigars all day long! I am delighted, however, to have found your weak point at last."

"You knew that long ago," replied Spinoza, and Kerkering nodded, and bit his lips in mental assent.

"You are very unjust to music," said Olympia, "when you compare it with your hobby. Your Descartes knew that music gave us many problems to solve; his book 'Compendium Musices' fascinated me very much. But the creation of music and its effects cannot be calculated and demonstrated in numbers. And yet music has some resemblance to mathematics, in that men created numbers, which did not exist in the world, but were imagined. And men created music, to which there was no parallel in the known world."

"The sounds we hear?"

"They have nothing to do with it. That men created and imagined a whole kingdom of inexhaustible sensations by tones makes music a miracle of the human mind as much as mathematics."

"Music moves in a course, uncircumscribed by fixed definitions," remarked Spinoza.

"How cold that sounds! When I shut my eyes and listen to good music I best comprehend myself, and men and circumstances that were before confused become clear to me. Imagine in harmony the spectacle of an endless succession of imprisoned and struggling souls, of whom some complain, sigh and bewail, while others carol, cheer, languish and storm; soon they are united, and in infinite variety express the same thought, then are mute. Again one awakes, rises and dies gently and happily. A band again join and rage and roar, the others hasten past, the dead are aroused, till at last peace settles on all."

"Your explanation is so imaginative," said Spinoza, "that it convinces me more than ever that music is the art of the emotions, and, indeed, moves in the sensations like elements without a definite object. Anger, pain, and joy, hate and love are evinced as elementary sensations without a tangible object. I will not reject such absorptions, but I find it enough to do to understand the sensations which are tangible, and thereby if possible to control them."

"And I tell you," maintained Olympia, "your whole philosophy is a philosophy of music. Oh, if I could only express what I mean properly. You once explained to me that the peace of society depended on each one resigning, for reciprocity's sake, something of the natural rights in accordance with which man may do all that he is able, that self-preservation may become the protection of all. Now that is the law of musical harmony. One note struck alone would be quite different and sharply defined; but if it passes into harmony it must sign somewhat of its nature that the notes may flow into harmony with one another, one after another rising and falling."

Spinoza looked at Olympia with sparkling eyes. How she treasured his words, and sought to bring them within her own mental sphere. He had no time to follow out his thought, that this view might be applied to their personal connection. For after a pause Olympia continued with this strange digression:

"I cannot help being annoyed, that while such extraordinary progress has been made in your art that the stars can be brought quite close to our sense of sight, why have not instruments been made to strengthen our hearing? How glorious it would be if we could hear the music of the spheres that Dante describes so divinely."

"If we accepted it as a fact that the stars move with rhythmical sound, it would do but little for our intelligence to hear them."

"Intelligence then is the measure of everything? Is not enjoyment desirable in itself? You must confess that no regular movement exists without rhythmical sound, from which I have drawn a very odd conclusion, which I will tell you, if you will promise not to laugh at me."

"I promise that, for I am curious to hear what conclusion seems so odd to you."

"Half a year ago my father told me that an English physician, named William Harvey, had discovered the circulation of the blood and its laws. I am convinced that as the movement of the heart makes a sound that we can hear, the movement of the blood in our veins must make a sound too, but one which we can very seldom hear. In times when we are perfectly healthy we are in perfect harmony, in times of sickness we are discordant. I told my father that the ringing we have in our ears must surely be a note that has broken loose from the general harmony. My father considers rather that it was an acoustic illusion when we thought we heard such sounds, but I cannot accept that view. You see there is really a great truth contained in the common saying that we can hear the grass grow. All through nature there is regular movement of moisture, and wherever there is movement there is sound and tone. Among the stars, in the depths of the earth, and on the surface, there is an eternal murmur and swell and clash. Music is the soul of the universe, is our soul. All is in million-voiced harmony, and the articulation given to man is its divinest revelation."

Olympia's expression of countenance grew brighter and brighter, and Spinoza said:

"You see I do not laugh at you. I am glad you evaded so well your father's view of it, which yet you so nearly agreed with. I will not allow myself to judge so hastily of your theory."

"Why must men's partialities be so different that they can hardly understand one another?" asked Olympia, and Spinoza replied:

"So that we should only try to convince each other on merely intellectual subjects; where this ends persecution for heresy begins. You are certainly right in your own appreciation of music, and in your love of it; but music is an example of how in matters of faith, of imagination in a word, where no fixed definition is afforded by intellectual proof, fanaticism and persecution so readily prevail. Men always become passionate where they are conscious of incapacity, and force an outward observance of what is only an internal law, an internal duty. Do not be led into taking me for a heretic to music, and banishing me from your sanctuary."

Kerkering quickly took advantage of this turn of the conversation to ask Olympia to go to the organ; Spinoza also expressed the same desire, and it was soothing and refreshing to their overwrought minds to listen to the tones that Olympia drew, now swelling, now softly sinking, from the instrument.

It was late in the evening when Spinoza and Kerkering left. The peculiarities of character in the two lovers were plainly expressed in the fact that Olympia, fascinated by the flow of musical sound, gave herself up unrestrainedly to her feelings, and there felt the freedom of unrestrained existence; while the philosopher's task and Spinoza's natural, ruling inclination was, unmisled by the stormy power of the sensations, not to let these deadening forces influence him, but to recognize their perpetual laws, and meanwhile to preserve amid all disturbances that equanimity which alone meant freedom to him.

A trifling physical peculiarity, but one which evinced a deeper tendency of disposition, might be recognized in the fact that Olympia's eyelids often blinked, while Spinoza's look was as open and steady as a child's.

It has not been yet investigated what relation such physical features have to the whole vitality and movement of the mind. May we found this observation on the case of Spinoza and Olympia: that, while the one, musical by nature, was animated momentarily by harmonious sound, the other had a steadily speculative or, as Oldenburg termed it, a plastic nature?

These diversities in their natures formed their complement and a continually growing fascination. Whether in constant association these differences would always be as easily accommodated or not; or whether it was the duty of one whose mission was independent and all-embracing thought, to live apart from every narrowing association in the region of pure intellect? These questions were for the time suppressed, for Spinoza had to show in other ways how far he already controlled his emotions.