And all that there is about art.
⁓The Voice before the Void
translated from the Russian by Abraham Yarmolinsky
At that time there lived in Rome a renowned sculptor. In clay, marble, and bronze he wrought bodies of gods and men, and such was their beauty, that people called them immortal. But he himself was discontented and asserted that there was something even more beautiful, that he could not embody either in marble or in bronze. “I have not yet gathered the glimmers of the moon, nor have I my fill of sunshine,” he was wont to say, “and there is no soul in my marble, no life in my beautiful bronze.” And when on moonlight nights he slowly walked along the road, crossing the black shadows of cypresses, his white tunic glittering in the moonshine, those who met him would laugh in a friendly way and say:
“Art thou going to gather moonshine, Aurelius? Why then didst thou not fetch baskets?”
And he would answer, laughing and pointing to his eyes:
“Here are the baskets wherein I gather the sheen of the moon and the glimmer of the sun.”
And so it was: the moon glimmered in his eyes and the sun sparkled therein. But he could not translate them into marble and therein lay the serene tragedy of his life.
He was descended from an ancient patrician line, had a good wife and children, and suffered from no want.
When the obscure rumor about Lazarus reached him, he consulted his wife and friends and undertook the far journey to Judea to see him who had miraculously risen from the dead. He was somewhat weary in those days and he hoped that the road would sharpen his blunted senses. What was said of Lazarus did not frighten him: he had pondered much over Death, did not like it, but he disliked also those who confused it with life.
“In this life,—life and beauty;
beyond,—Death, the enigmatical”—
thought he, and there is no better thing for a man to do than to delight in life and in the beauty of all things living. He had even a vainglorious desire to convince Lazarus of the truth of his own view and restore his soul to life, as his body had been restored. This seemed so much easier because the rumors, shy and strange, did not render the whole truth about Lazarus and but vaguely warned against something frightful.
Lazarus had just risen from the stone in order to follow the sun which was setting in the desert, when a rich Roman attended by an armed slave, approached him and addressed him in a sonorous tone of voice:
And Lazarus beheld a superb face, lit with glory, and arrayed in fine clothes, and precious stones sparkling in the sun. The red light lent to the Roman’s face and head the appearance of gleaming bronze—that also Lazarus noticed. He resumed obediently his place and lowered his weary eyes.
“Yes, thou art ugly, my poor Lazarus,”—quietly said the Roman, playing with his golden chain; “thou art even horrible, my poor friend; and Death was not lazy that day when thou didst fall so heedlessly into his hands. But thou art stout, and, as the great Cæsar used to say, fat people are not ill-tempered; to tell the truth, I don’t understand why men fear thee. Permit me to spend the night in thy house; the hour is late, and I have no shelter.”
Never had anyone asked Lazarus’ hospitality.
“I have no bed,” said he.
“I am somewhat of a soldier and I can sleep sitting,” the Roman answered. “We shall build a fire.”
“I have no fire.”
“Then we shall have our talk in the darkness, like two friends. I think thou wilt find a bottle of wine.”
“I have no wine.”
The Roman laughed.
“Now I see why thou art so somber and dislikest thy second life. No wine! Why, then we shall do without it: there are words that make the head go round better than the Falernian.”
By a sign he dismissed the slave, and they remained all alone. And again the sculptor started speaking, but it was as if, together with the setting sun, life had left his words; and they grew pale and hollow, as if they staggered on unsteady feet, as if they slipped and fell down, drunk with the heavy lees of weariness and despair. And black chasms grew up between the words—like far-off hints of the great void and the great darkness.
“Now I am thy guest, and thou wilt not be unkind to me, Lazarus!”—said he. “Hospitality is the duty even of those who for three days were dead. Three days, I was told, thou didst rest in the grave. There it must be cold … and that is whence comes thy ill habit of going without fire and wine. As to me, I like fire; it grows dark here so rapidly…. The lines of thy eyebrows and forehead are quite, quite interesting: they are like ruins of strange palaces, buried in ashes after an earthquake. But why dost thou wear such ugly and queer garments? I have seen bridegrooms in thy country, and they wear such clothes—are they not funny—and terrible…. But art thou a bridegroom?”
The sun had already disappeared, a monstrous black shadow came running from the east—it was as if gigantic bare feet began rumbling on the sand, and the wind sent a cold wave along the backbone.
“In the darkness thou seemest still larger, Lazarus, as if thou hast grown stouter in these moments. Dost thou feed on darkness, Lazarus? I would fain have a little fire—at least a little fire, a little fire. I feel somewhat chilly, your nights are so barbarously cold…. Were it not so dark, I should say that thou wert looking at me, Lazarus. Yes, it seems to me, thou art looking…. Why, thou art looking at me, I feel it,—but there thou art smiling.”
Night came, and filled the air with heavy blackness.
“How well it will be, when the sun will rise to-morrow anew…. I am a great sculptor, thou knowest; that is how my friends call me. I create. Yes, that is the word … but I need daylight. I give life to the cold marble, I melt sonorous bronze in fire, in bright hot fire…. Why didst thou touch me with thy hand?”
“Come”—said Lazarus—”Thou art my guest.”
And they went to the house. And a long night enveloped the earth.
The slave, seeing that his master did not come, went to seek him, when the sun was already high in the sky. And he beheld his master side by side with Lazarus: in profound silence were they sitting right under the dazzling and scorching sunrays and looking upward. The slave began to weep and cried out:
“My master, what has befallen thee, master?”
The very same day the sculptor left for Rome. On the way Aurelius was pensive and taciturn, staring attentively at everything—the men, the ship, the sea, as though trying to retain something. On the high sea a storm burst upon them, and all through it Aurelius stayed on the deck and eagerly scanned the seas looming near and sinking with a thud.
At home his friends were frightened at the change which had taken place in Aurelius, but he calmed them, saying meaningly:
“I have found it.”
And without changing the dusty clothes he wore on his journey, he fell to work, and the marble obediently resounded under his sonorous hammer. Long and eagerly worked he, admitting no one, until one morning he announced that the work was ready and ordered his friends to be summoned, severe critics and connoisseurs of art. And to meet them he put on bright and gorgeous garments, that glittered with yellow gold—and—scarlet byssus.
“Here is my work,” said he thoughtfully.
His friends glanced and a shadow of profound sorrow covered their faces. It was something monstrous, deprived of all the lines and shapes familiar to the eye, but not without a hint at some new, strange image.
On a thin, crooked twig, or rather on an ugly likeness of a twig rested askew a blind, ugly, shapeless, outspread mass of something utterly and inconceivably distorted, a mad leap of wild and bizarre fragments, all feebly and vainly striving to part from one another. And, as if by chance, beneath one of the wildly-rent salients a butterfly was chiseled with divine skill, all airy loveliness, delicacy, and beauty, with transparent wings, which seemed to tremble with an impotent desire to take flight.
“Wherefore this wonderful butterfly, Aurelius?” said somebody falteringly.
“I know not”—was the sculptor’s answer.
But it was necessary to tell the truth, and one of his friends who loved him best said firmly:
“This is ugly, my poor friend. It must be destroyed. Give me the hammer.”
And with two strokes he broke the monstrous man into pieces, leaving only the infinitely delicate butterfly untouched.
From that time on Aurelius created nothing. With profound indifference he looked at marble and bronze, and on his former divine works, where everlasting beauty rested. With the purpose of arousing his former fervent passion for work and, awakening his deadened soul, his friends took him to see other artists’ beautiful works,—but he remained indifferent as before, and the smile did not warm up his tightened lips. And only after listening to lengthy talks about beauty, he would retort wearily and indolently:
“But all this is a lie.”
And by the day, when the sun was shining, he went into his magnificent, skilfully built garden and having found a place without shadow, he exposed his bare head to the glare and heat. Red and white butterflies fluttered around; from the crooked lips of a drunken satyr, water streamed down with a splash into a marble cistern, but he sat motionless and silent,—like a pallid reflection of him who, in the far-off distance, at the very gates of the stony desert, sat under the fiery sun.
Continued in part 3.