Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
AT these words an insignificant little man, with a gray forehead, gray eyes and a small gray beard, advanced with little steps and said, smiling:
"I was here."
Phrasilas was an esteemed writer on various subjects, yet one could not say exactly whether he was a philosopher, a grammarian, an historian or a mythologist, so much did he touch upon the gravest studies with a timid ardor and a fickle curiosity. He dared not write a treatise, he could not construct a drama. His style had something hypocritical, meticulous and vain. For thinkers he was a poet; for poets a sage; for society a great man.
"Well, let us go to the table," said Bacchis. And she laid herself upon the couch which presided over the feast. At her right lay Philodemos with Faustina and Phrasilas. At the left of Naucrates, Seso, then Chrysis and young Timon. Each of the guests reclined diagonally, resting the elbow on a silken cushion, their heads wreathed with flowers. A slave brought the crowns of red roses and blue lotus. Then the repast commenced.
Timon felt that his prank had thrown a slight coolness over the women. Therefore, not speaking to them at first, but addressing himself to Philodemos, he said gravely, "They say that thou
art a very devoted friend of Cicero. What dost thou think of him, Philodemos? Is he an enlightened philosopher or merely a compiler without discernment or taste? For I have heard both opinions sustained."
"Precisely because I am his friend, I cannot answer thee," said Philodemos. "I have known him too well; therefore I know him ill. Question Phrasilas who, having read him but little, will judge him correctly."
"Well, what does Phrasilas think of him?"
"He is an admirable writer," said the little man.
"How dost thou mean that?"
"In the sense that all writers, Timon, are admirable in something, like all countries and all souls. Yet, to me, the spectacle of the sea is no more preferable than the dullest plain. And so I could not class a treatise of Cicero, an ode of Pindar and a letter of Chrysis in the order of my sympathies even if I knew the style of our excellent friend at thy side. When I close a book I am satisfied if I carry away the memory of one line which has made me think. Until now, all those I have opened contained this line. But not one has given me a second. Perhaps we each have but a single thing to say in our life, and those who attempt to speak at greater length are too ambitious. How much more I regret the irreparable silence of the millions of souls who have not spoken."
"I do not agree with thee," said Naucrates, without raising his eyes. "The universe was created that three truths might be said and it is our misfortune that their certainty should have been proved five centuries before this evening. Heraclitos has comprehended the world; Parmenides has unmasked the soul; Pythagoras
has measured God; nothing is left us but to be silent. I find the chick-pea very impudent."
Seso tapped the table with the handle of her fan. "Timon," she said, "my friend."
"What is it?"
"Why dost thou ask questions which have no interest either for me, who know no Latin, or for thee who wishest to forget it? Art thou trying to dazzle Faustina with thy cosmopolitan erudition? My poor friend, thou wilt not deceive me with words. I disrobed thy great soul yesterday evening under my coverlets and I know, Timon, the chick-pea about which it is concerned."
"Dost thou think so?" said the young man, simply.
But Phrasilas commenced a second little speech in an ironic and softened voice: "Seso, when we have the pleasure of hearing thee judge Timon, whether it be to applaud him as he merits or to blame himwhich we cannot doremember that he is an invisible being with a singular soul. It does not exist by itself, or at least we cannot know that it does, but it reflects those which mirror in it and changes in aspect with its changes in place. Last night, it was quite like thee: I am not surprised that it pleased thee. Just now it has taken the image of Philodemos: that is why thou didst just say that it belied itself. But it does not intend to be contradictory since it affirms nothing. Thou seest, my dear, thou must refrain from thoughtless judgments."
Timon cast an irritated look in the direction of Phrasilas, but he reserved his reply.
"However that may be," continued Seso, "here we are, four courtesans, and we intend to direct the conversation in order nor
to resemble pink children who only open their mouths to drink milk. Faustina, as thou art the newcomer, commence."
"Very good," said Naucrates, "choose for us, Faustina. Of what shall we speak?"
The young Roman turned her head, raised her eyes, blushed and, with an undulation of her whole body, sighed: "Of love."
"A very pretty subject," said Seso, suppressing a laugh.
But no one took up the word.
The table was covered with wreaths, greens, cups and ewers. Slaves brought woven baskets filled with bread light as snow. Fat eels sprinkled with seasonings, wax-colored alphests and sacred callichthys were brought in upon platters of painted earthenware.
Thus too were served a pompilos, a purple fish believed to be born of the same foam as Aphrodite, boops and bed-radones, a gray mullet flanked with cuttle-fish, and multicolored scorpni. In order that they might be eaten burning hot, slices of fat tunny-fish and soft warm poulps with tender arms were presented in their little casseroles. And at the last, the belly of a white torpedo.
Such was the first course, from which the guests selected the good morsels in little fragments and left the rest for the slaves.
"Love," began Phrasilas, "is a word which has no meaning or which means everything at once, for it designates in turn two irreconcilable sentiments: Voluptuousness and passion. I do not know in what sense Faustina means it."
"I wish," interrupted Chrysis, "voluptuousness for my part and passion for my lover's. Thou must speak of both or thou wilt but half interest me."
"Love," murmured Philodemos, "is neither passion nor voluptuousness. Love is quite another thing . . ."
"Oh! for pity's sake," cried Timon, "let us have, this evening, as an exception, a banquet without philosophies. We know, Phrasilas, that thou canst sustain the superiority of multiple pleasure over exclusive passion with a sweet eloquence and a honeyed persuasion. We know too that, after having spoken a full hour over so difficult a matter, thou wouldst be ready, during the following hour, to sustain the reasons of thine opponent with the same sweet eloquence and the same honeyed persuasion. I . . ."
"Permit . . ." said Phrasilas.
"I do not deny," continued Timon, "the charm of this little game or even the wit thou employest in it. But I question its difficulty and, more than that, its interest. The 'Banquet' which thou didst publish some time ago in the course of a less serious tale and also the reflections borrowed by thee from a mythical personage who resembles thine ideal, seemed new and rare under the reign of Ptolemy Auletes; but we have lived for three years under the young queen Berenice, and I fail to understand by what complete change the smiling and harmonious method of thought has suddenly aged an hundred years under thy pen like the fashion of closed sleeves and yellow tinted hair. Excellent master, I deplore it, for though thy tales may need a little fire, though thine experience of the feminine heart is only superficial, on the other hand thou art at least gifted with the comic spirit and I love thee for having made me smile."
"Timon!" cried Bacchis, indignantly. But Phrasilas stopped her with a gesture.
"Let it pass, my dear. Unlike most men, I retain, of the judgment
whose subject I am, only that part of the praises which pleases me. Timon has given me his; others will praise me on other points. I could not live in the midst of a unanimous approbation, and the variety of sentiments which I call forth is, to me, a charming garden where I wish to breathe the roses without touching spurge."
Chrysis moved her lips in a way that indicated clearly how little she made of this man who was so clever at terminating discussions. She turned toward Timon who was her neighbor on the couch and laid her hand upon his neck.
"What is the object of life?" she asked.
It was the question she asked when she did not know what to say to a philosopher; but this time she put such a tenderness into her voice that Timon almost fancied he heard a declaration of love.
However, he replied with certain calmness, "Each life has its own, my Chrysis. There is no universal object to the existence of beings. As for me, I am the son of a banker among whose patrons are all the great courtesans of Egypt, and, my father having amassed a considerable fortune by ingenious means, I restore it nobly to the victims of his good deeds by such means as the gods permit. I consider myself capable of fulfilling but a single duty in life. Such is the one I have chosen since it reconciles the demand of the rarest virtue with contrary satisfaction which another ideal would not support so well."
There were a few moments of silence; then Seso took up the word. "Timon, thou art very annoying to interrupt, at the beginning, the only serious conversation whose subject is interesting to
us. At least let Naucrates speak, since thou hast such a bad character."
"What shall I say of love?" replied the invited. "It is the name given to sorrow to console those who suffer. There are but two ways of being unhappy: to desire what one has not or to possess what one desires. Love commences by the first and finishes by the second, in the most lamentable statethat is to say: as soon as it succeeds. May the gods save us from loving!"
"But to possess unexpectedly," said Philodemos, smiling, "is not that real happiness?"
"What a rarity!"
"Not at allif one looks for it. Hear this, Naucrates: not to desire, but to take advantage of the occasion which presents itself; not to love, but to cherish from afar some very select persons for whom one feels a liking which the disposition of chance and circumstance might warm into desire; never to adorn a woman with the qualities one would wish in her, nor with the beauties of which she makes a mystery, but to presuppose the insipid in order to be astonished at the exquisiteis not that the best advice a sage could give to lovers? Only those have lived happily who have sometimes known how to arrange in their luxurious existence the inappreciable purity of some unforeseen enjoyment."
The second course was coming to an end. Pheasants had been served, sand-grouse, a magnificent red and blue porphura and a swan with all its feathers which had been cooked for forty-eight hours in order not to scorch its wings. Upon upcurved platters lay water-plants, pelicans and a white peacock which seemed to brood eighteen roasted and larded white ballsin short, food enough to
nourish a hundred persons with the fragments which were left, when the choice morsels had been set aside. But all this was nothing beside the last dish.
This masterpiece (for nothing such had been seen at Alexandria for a long time) was a young pig, half of which had been roasted and the other half stewed in bouillon. It was impossible to distinguish where it had been killed or how they had filled its belly with all it contained. It was stuffed with round quails, the breasts of fowls, larks, succulent sauces, and minced meat, the presence of which, in the intact animal, seemed inexplicable.
There was a general cry of admiration and Faustina resolved to ask for the recipe. Phrasilas smilingly uttered metaphorical sentences; Philodemos improvised a distich where the word «χοῖρος» was taken by turns in its two meanings, which made the already drunken Seso laugh until she cried; but as Bacchis had given the order to pour out seven rare wines in seven cups for each banqueter, the conversation degenerated.
Timon turned toward Bacchis. "Why," he demanded, "wert thou so unkind to that poor girl I wished to bring? She was, at least, a colleague. In thy place, I would respect a poor courtesan more than a rich matron."
"Thou art mad," said Bacchis, without discussing it.
"Yes, I have often remarked that those who occasionally hazard astounding truths are considered eccentric. Paradoxes find everybody in agreement."
"Come, my friend, ask thy neighbors. Who is the well-born man who would take a girl without jewels for his mistress?" "I have done it," Philodemos said, simply.
The women sniffed at him.
"Last year," he continued, "toward the end of spring, since the exile of Cicero gave me cause to fear for my own safety, I took a little journey. I withdrew to the foot of the Alps, to a charming place named Orobia, on the shores of little Lake Clisios. It was a simple village where there were less than three hundred women, and one of them had become a priestess of Aphrodite to protect the others. Her house was known by a bouquet of flowers hung over the door, but she herself could not be distinguished from her sisters or her cousins. She did not know there were such things as paints, perfumes and cosmetics, intriguing veils and curling irons. She did not know how to care for her beauty. She depilated herself with sticky resin as one uproots weeds in a white marble court. It makes one shudder to think that she went without shoes, so that one could never kiss her bare feet as one does Faustina's, which are softer than hands. Yet in her company I found so many charms that I forgot Rome and happy Tyre and Alexandria for a whole month."
Naucrates approved with a sign of his head, and said, after having drunk, "The great moment of love is the instant when the true self is revealed. Women should know this and spare us disappointing surprises. But it seems, on the contrary, that they make every effort to disillusion us. Is there anything more painful than flowing hair on which one sees the traces of hot irons? anything more disagreeable than painted cheeks whose color clings to a kiss? anything more piteous than a penciled eye whose darkness smears? In the last analysis, I might understand how women could sometimes use these illusory devices; every woman loves to surround herself with a circle of admiring men, and if they meet no more intimately they need not reveal their true appearance. But it
is inconceivable that any woman should seek to attract admiration by means which will destroy it as soon as it brings the admirer to her. Can any woman wish to be less attractive in private than in public?"
"Thou knowest nothing about it, Naucrates," said Chrysis, with a smile. "I know one cannot hold one lover out of twenty; yet one does not attract one man out of five hundred, and before pleasing him alone, he must be pleased in public. No one would see us pass if we neither rouged nor penciled. The little peasant of whom Philodemos spoke attracted him without difficulty because she was alone in her village; there are fifteen thousand beautiful women here; it is quite another competition."
"Dost thou not know that pure beauty has no need of adornment and is sufficient unto itself?"
"Yes. Very well, make a pure beauty compete, as thou sayest, with Gnathene who is ugly and old. Put the first in a torn tunic in the last rows of the theater and the second in her robe of stars in a place reserved by her slaves and note their admirers when they leave; a handful would pay court to the pure beauty and two hundred to Gnathene."
"Men are stupid," concluded Seso.
"Nosimply lazy. They give themselves no trouble in choosing their mistresses. The most loved are the most deceitful."
"What if," insinuated Phrasilas, "what if, on the one side, I would willingly praise . . ." And he maintained, with great charm, two theses utterly without interest.
One by one, twelve dancing girls appeared, the first two playing the flute and the last the tambourine, the others clapping crotals.
They adjusted their fillets, rubbed their little sandals with white resin, waited with outstretched arms for the music to commence . . . One note . . . two notes . . . a Lydian scale . . . and upon a light rhythm the twelve young girls sprang forward.
The dance was soft, slow and without apparent order, though all its figures had been fixed in advance. They maneuvered in a small space, they mingled like waves. Soon they grouped themselves into couples and without interrupting their steps, untied their girdles and let their rose-colored outer tunics fall. The odor of the dancer's perfume diffused around the men, dominating the scents of the flowers and the steam of the broken meats. They threw themselves backward with sudden movements, arms over eyes, then straightened and touched hands in passing. Timon's cheek was caressed by a fugitive warm palm.
"What is our friend thinking?" said Phrasilas in his thin voice.
"I am perfectly happy," replied Timon, "I have never understood so clearly as this evening the supreme mission of woman."
"And what is it?"
"To be lovedwith or without art."
"That is one opinion."
"Phrasilas, once more, we know that nothing can be proved; furthermore, we know that nothing exists and that even that is not certain. Remember that, and, to satisfy thy venerable mania, permit me to have a thesis at the same time debatable and vanquished, as they all are, but interesting for me who affirms it and for the majority of men who deny it. In the realm of thought, originality is more of a chimerical ideal than a certainty. Thou must know that."
"Give me some more wine," said Seso to the slave. "It is stronger than the other."
"I maintain," continued Timon, "that the married woman, in devoting herself to a man who deceives her; in refusing herself to every other; in bringing to the light children who deform her before their birth and monopolize her after itI maintain that, in living thus, the woman called honest loses her life and that upon her marriage day the young girl makes a fool's bargain."
"She believes herself obeying a duty," said Naucrates, without conviction.
"A duty? and toward whom? Is she not free to regulate a question which concerns herself alone? She is a woman and as such she is generally impervious to all pleasures of the intellect; and not content with remaining a stranger to this half of human joys, she marries and thus denies herself the other! Can any young girl say to herself, at the age when she is all ardor, 'I will have my husband and know ten friends besides, perhaps twelve,' and think that she will die without having regretted anything? As for me, when I quit life, the memory of three thousand will not satisfy me."
"Thou art ambitious," commented Chrysis.
"But with what incense, with what golden verse," cried the gentle Philodemos, "should we not praise forever these beneficent companions! For your enlightened souls, love is not a sacrifice; it is an equal favor which two lovers exchange. We find among you the dreams of our lives. You are gentle to the graceless, consoling to the afflicted, hospitable to all, and beautiful, so beautiful! That is why I tell you, Chrysis, Bacchis, Seso, Faustina, that it is
a just law of the gods which grants to you all the eternal admiration of men and the eternal envy of all women."
The dancers had finished their steps.
A young acrobat had just entered who began juggling with daggers and walked upon her hands among the upright blades.
As the attention of the guests was entirely attracted to the child's dangerous play, Timon looked at Chrysis and, little by little, without being seen, approached closer to her.
"No," said Chrysis, in a low voice. "No, my friend." But he slipped his arm around her.
"Stop," she begged. "They will see us. Bacchis will be angry."
A glance convinced the young man that no one was watching them. He emboldened himself to a further caress. Then, as a decisive argument against the scruples of modesty, he put his purse into the hand which lay, by chance, open.
Meanwhile, the young acrobat continued her subtle and perilous tricks. She walked on her hands, her skirt falling back, her feet hanging before her head, between sharp swords and long-pointed blades. Her uncomfortable position and perhaps also the fear of wounds, flooded her cheeks with dark, warm blood which heightened still more the brightness of her wide open eyes. Her waist bent and straightened. Her legs parted like the arms of a dancing-girl. Quick breathing pulsed in her bosom.
"Enough," said Chrysis, curtly: "thou art annoying me! Let me go. Let me go!"
And at the moment when the two Ephesians arose to play, according to the tradition, "The Fable of Hermaphrodite," she let herself slip from the couch and fled.