Sunday, 13 December 2009

Moulds of the Earth

by Bolesław Prus

One time I happened to be in Puławy with a certain botanist. We were seating ourselves by the Temple of the Sibyl on a bench next to a boulder grown over with mosses or moulds which my learned companion had been studying for several years. I asked what he found of interest in examining the irregular splotches of beige, grey, green, yellow or red?

He looked at me distrustfully but, persuaded that he had before him an uninitiated person, he proceeded to explain: “These splotches that you see are not inanimate dirt but — collections of living beings. Invisible to the naked eye, they are born, carry out movements that are imperceptible to us, enter into matrimonial bonds, produce offspring, and finally die. More remarkably, they form as it were societies which you see here in the form of the variously colored splotches — they cultivate the ground beneath them for the next generations — they proliferate, colonize empty places, even fight each other.

“This grey splotch, large as the palm of a person’s hand, was two years ago no larger than a penny. This tiny grey spot a year ago didn’t exist and comes from the great splotch that occupies the top of the boulder. These two again, the yellow and the red, are fighting. At one time the yellow was the larger, but slowly its neighbor has displaced it. And look at the green one — how its grizzled neighbor is making inroads into it, how many grey streaks, spots, clumps can be seen against the green background?”

“As it is among people,” I interjected.

“Well, no,” replied the botanist. “These societies lack language, art, learning, consciousness, feeling; in a word — they lack souls and hearts, which we human beings possess. Here everything happens blindly, mechanically, without sympathies and without antipathies.”

A few years later I found myself beside that same boulder at night, and by the light of the moon regarded the changes that had taken place in the forms and sizes of the various moulds. Suddenly someone nudged me. It was my botanist. I asked him to have a seat; but he stepped before me in such a way as to hide the moon, and whispered something voicelessly. The Temple of the Sibyl, the bench, and the boulder vanished.

I sensed about me a faint luminosity and an immense void. And when I turned my head to the side, I saw something like a schoolroom globe that shone with a faint light, as large as the boulder beside which we had been a moment before. The globe slowly revolved, showing successive new areas. There was the Asian landmass with the little peninsula of Europe; there was Africa, the two Americas...

Looking intently, I made out on the inhabited lands the same kinds of splotches, beige, grey, green, yellow and red, as on the boulder. They comprised myriads of vanishingly small points, ostensibly motionless, actually moving very lazily: an individual point moved at most by a two-minute arc in an hour, and that not in a straight line but as it were oscillating about its own center of motion.

The points joined, separated, vanished, came to the surface of the globe: but all these things did not merit particular attention. What was of consequence was the movements of entire splotches, which diminished or grew, showed up in new places, infiltrated or displaced one another. The globe meanwhile kept making its rounds and seemed to me to execute hundreds of thousands of revolutions.

“Is that supposed to be the history of mankind?” I asked the botanist standing beside me. He nodded in confirmation.

“All right — but where are the arts, knowledge?...”

He smiled sadly.

“Where’s consciousness, love, hate, longing?...”

“Ha! ha! ha!...” he laughed softly.

“In short — where are the human souls and hearts here?...”

“Ha! ha! ha!...”

His demeanor offended me.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Just then I found myself back in the garden beside the boulder, whose shapeless splotches swam in the moonlight. My companion had vanished, but now I knew him by his mockery and melancholy.

Bolesław Prus (1847-1912). Born in Hrubieszów, a Polish town on the border with Ukraine, he became one of the most significant Polish writers of the 19th century. At the age of fifteen he took part in the Polish Uprising against Russia and was imprisoned, an experience that left him traumatised for many years. His most famous novel, The Doll, was published in book form in 1890. Reconstructing the city of Warsaw in minute detail, this novel has often been seen as a forerunner to James Joyce's Ulysses.