Six Dialogues with Leuco
|Through leaves that fluttered in darkness rose hills where the things of the day — the slopes, the trees, the vineyards — stood clearly defined and dead, and life was another thing, made of wind, of sky,of leaves, and of nothing.1|
|If there is an actor in Trop tôt, trop tard, it’s the landscape. This actor has a text to recite: History (the peasants who resist, the land which remains), of which it is the living witness. The actor performs with a certain amount of talent: the cloud that passes, a breaking loose of birds, a bouquet of trees bent by the wind, a break in the clouds…2|
As Jacques Rancière observed in Film Fables (2006), ‘images, properly speaking, are the things of the world.’ This simple assertion — a belief that cinema might not be the name of an art but, in fact, ‘the name of the world’ — is rarely more prominent than in the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. In the essay which this section is intended to accompany, Denis Lévy writes that their films are (history) lessons for visual and aural attention, encounters with ideas and things that force us to refocus our attention, revealing the dialectics of word and image, myth and reality. Straub-Huillet’s films always originate from existing texts or non-filmic sources (novels, plays, letters, interviews, poetry, theory, opera) and consistently foreground a tension between the performance of those texts and the places upon which they reflect. This ‘adaptation’ of the world and its history is their declaration of materiality, both visual and sonic, and the fullness of the resultant encounter can leave the spectator, in Lévy’s words, ‘as if struck partially blind by the text.’
With this in mind, we present here, with the permission of Jean-Marie Straub, the translation of six dialogues by Cesare Pavese for English and American subtitled prints of Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resistance, 1979). Pavese’s original texts were published in 1947 as part of his final work, Dialoghi con Leucò (Dialogues with Leuco), twenty-seven dialogues between gods and mortals drawn from Greek mythology. There are two principle reasons for reproducing the dialogues in English here. The first is that the textual translation for Straub-Huillet’s film often differs radically from William Arrowsmith and D.S. Carne-Ross’s, published in 1965 — the only other English translation, now out of print. The reproduction of Pavese’s prose in Dalla nube alla resistenza is simpler, more direct, respectful of the Italian order of words and phrases. It refuses to compromise language by “converting” the text or attempting, in essence, to render it anew: English “equivalents” for particular words are rejected, and only the most elemental materiality of words conveyed.
Danièle Huillet frequently, if not always, supervised foreign subtitles for Straub-Huillet’s films, and her guidance here is evident. Barton Byg, who worked on the English subtitles for Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations, 1984) and many subsequent films, recalls Danièle’s influence: ‘In keeping with the aesthetic of the films, Danièle’s key word for the subtitling was “simplicity”.’ With regard to translating Kafka’s novel Amerika for Klassenverhältnisse, Byg adds: ‘In English, more than in French, it is possible to find linguistic correspondences with the origin, sound and form of the German words, even if the meaning would be somewhat strained. She encouraged me to go in this direction, as long as it did not become too “Shakespearian”.’ “Literal” meaning in the subtitles of Straub-Huillet’s films is sacrificed for an altogether different mode of clarity, one that is appropriate not merely to minimising the visible textual element of the projected image, but the rendering of Pavese’s plain yet vivid prose itself. In order to reflect the contrast in method between both versions of the dialogues in Dalla nube alla resistenza, we have added footnotes referring to Arrowsmith & Carne-Ross’s translation, acknowledging the possibility of further interpretation.
Our second reason is, simply, that the visual plenitude of Straub-Huillet’s films, and the directness of their sound (of speech, of a sonic record of place), benefits from the fullness of unadorned presentation. Subtitles are an unfortunate imposition upon cinema’s images of the world, and a necessary evil best avoided here, if possible. In Dalla nube alla resistenza, the performers of Pavese’s text are both its landscapes and its people, fixed like rocks and trees, reaching out to the hills, valleys, and sky. Repeated viewings are necessary even to begin to perceive the film’s proximity to this material voice. So we offer the opportunity for viewers to observe, and hear, the film without subtitles, and to consult the text separately. Both are equally valuable.
— Matthew Flanagan, Exeter, 2011
I. The Cloud
It seems likely that Ixion was condemned to Tartarus because of his presumption. But that he fathered the Centaurs on the clouds is false, since the race of Centaurs already existed at the time of his son’s marriage. The Lapiths and the Centaurs belong to the age of the Titans, when very different creatures were still permitted to mate and interbreed. The result was that swarm of monsters which Olympus later pursued with implacable hatred.3
The Cloud: There is a law, Ixion, which we must obey.
Ixion: Up here the law does not arrive, Nephele. Here the law is the snow-field, the storm, the darkness. And when the clear day comes and you draw, light, near to the rock, it is too beautiful still to think about it.
The Cloud: There is a law, Ixion, which there wasn’t before. The clouds, a stronger hand gathers them.
Ixion: Here this hand does not arrive. You yourself, now that it is fine, laugh. And when the sky grows dim and the wind howls, what matters the hand which scatters us like droplets? It happened already in the times when there was no master. Nothing has changed on the mounts. We are used to all this.
The Cloud: Many things have changed on the mounts. Pelion knows it, Ossa and Olympus know it. Still wilder mounts know it.
Ixion: What has changed on the mounts, Nephele?
The Cloud: Neither the sun nor the water, Ixion. Man’s fate has changed. There are monsters. A limit is imposed upon you men. The water, the wind, the rock and the cloud are no longer your things, you can no longer press them close to you, engendering and living. Other hands henceforth hold the world. There is a law, Ixion.
Ixion: My fate, I have it in my fist, Nephele. What has changed? These new masters can perhaps hinder me from casting a rock in play, or from going down to the plain and breaking an enemy’s spine? Will they be more terrible than fatigue and death?
The Cloud: It is not that, Ixion. All that you can do, and other things more. But you can no longer mingle with us others, the nymphs of the springs and of the mounts, with the daughters of the wind, with the goddesses of the earth. Destiny has changed.
Ixion: You can no longer… What does it mean, Nephele?
The Cloud: It means that, wanting that, you will on the contrary do terrible things. As would he who, to caress a companion, would strangle him, or be strangled by him.
Ixion: You won’t come any more on the mountain? You are afraid of me?
The Cloud: I’ll come on the mountain and everywhere. You cannot do anything to me, Ixion. You cannot do anything against the water and against the wind. But you must bow your head. Only thus will you save your fate. I am afraid. I have seen the peaks of the mounts. But not for me, Ixion. I cannot suffer. I am afraid for you, who are only men. These mounts, where you once wandered as masters, these creatures, ours and yours, engendered in freedom, now tremble at a nod. We are all enslaved by a stronger hand. The sons of the water and the wind, the Centaurs, are hiding at the bottom of the ravines. They know they are monsters.
Ixion: Who says so?
The Cloud: Don’t defy the hand, Ixion. It is fate. I have seen some more audacious than them and you hurled from the rock and not die. Death, which was your courage, can be taken from you, like some good.
Ixion: What does it matter? We’ll live longer.
The Cloud: You play and do not know the immortals.
Ixion: I want to know them, Nephele.
The Cloud: Ixion, you believe that they are presences like us, like Night, Earth and old Pan. You are young, Ixion, but you were born under the old destiny. For you no monsters exist but only companions. For you death is something that happens, like day and night. You are one of us, Ixion. You are all in the gesture you make. But for them, the immortals, your gestures have a sense that lingers. They feel everything from afar with their eyes, their nostrils, their lips. They are immortals and they do not know how to live alone. What you achieve or do not achieve, what you say, what you seek, everything gladdens or displeases them. And if you disgust them — if by mistake you disturb them in their Olympus—they pounce on you and give you death,that death which they know, which is a bitter savour which lasts and is felt.
Ixion: Then one can still die.
The Cloud: No, Ixion. They will make of you like a shadow, but a shadow that wants to live again and does not ever die.
Ixion: Have you seen them, these gods? I have, Nephele. They are not terrible.
The Cloud: I knew it. Your fate is marked. Whom have you seen?
Ixion: It was a young man, who was walking barefoot through the forest. He passed by me and did not say a word to me. Then in front of a rock he vanished. I sought him for a long time, to ask him who he was. He seemed made of the same flesh as you. Then in a dream I saw him again, with the goddesses. They told me the things that you are telling, but without fear, without trembling like you. We talked together of destiny and death. We talked of Olympus, we laughed at the ridiculous monsters.
The Cloud: O Ixion, Ixion, your fate is marked. Now you know what has changed above the mounts, you too have changed. You believe yourself to be something more than a man.
Ixion: I tell you, Nephele, that you are like them. Why, at least in a dream, should not they please me?
The Cloud: Fool, you cannot stop at dreams. You will climb up as far as them. You will do something terrible. Then that death will come.
Ixion: Tell me the names of all the goddesses.
The Cloud: You see that dreaming is not enough for you anymore? And that you believe in your dream as if it were real? I implore you, Ixion, don’t climb to the top. Think of the monsters and of the punishments. Nothing else can come from them.
Ixion: I had another dream last night. You were there too. We were fighting the Centaurs. I had a son who was the son of a goddess, I don’t know which. And he seemed to me like that young man who walked through the forest. He was stronger even than me, Nephele. The Centaurs fled, and the mountain was ours. You were laughing, Nephele. You see that even in a dream my fate is acceptable.
The Cloud: Your fate is marked. One does not lift one’s eyes to a goddess with impunity.
Ixion: Not even to the one of the oak, the lady of the peaks?
The Cloud: The one or the other, Ixion, it does not matter. But don’t be afraid. I’ll be with you until the end.
II. The Chimera
It was with high hearts that the youth of Greece set out for the East in quest of glory and death. Here their courage and daring took them through a sea of fabulous atrocities, in which some of them failed to keep their heads. There is no point in citing names. Besides, there were more than seven such Crusades. It is Homer himself who — in Book VI of the Iliad—tells us of the melancholy which consumed the killer of the Chimera in his old age, and of his young grandson Sarpedon who died under the walls of Troy.4
Sarpedon: I have seen your father, Hippolochus. He won’t hear of coming back. He wanders, ugly and stubborn, through the countryside, and does not care about inclement weather nor washes himself. He is old and beggarly.
Hippolochus: About him, what do the boors say?
Sarpedon: The Aleian plain is desolate, uncle. There is nothing but reeds and swamps. On the Xanthus, where I asked about him, they had not seen him for days. He does not remember either us or the houses. When he meets somebody, he talks to him of the Solymi, and of Glaucus, Sisyphus, the Chimera. Seeing me he said: ‘Boy, if I were your age, I would already have thrown myself into the sea.’ But he does not threaten a living soul. ‘Boy,’ he said to me, ‘you are just and pious. We are just and pious men. If you want to live just and pious, stop living.’
Hippolochus: Truly he grumbles and complains in this manner?
Sarpedon: He says threatening and terrible things. He calls the gods to measure themselves against him. Day and night, he walks. But he insults and pities only the dead and the gods.
Hippolochus: Glaucus and Sisyphus, you said?
Sarpedon: He says they were punished by treachery. Why wait until they got old to overtake the sad and decaying? ‘Bellerophon,’ he says, ‘was just and pious as long as the blood coursed in his muscles. And now that he is old and that he is alone, the gods abandon him?’
Hippolochus: Strange thing, to be astonished about it. And to accuse the gods of what falls to all living men. But he, what has he in common with those who are dead, he who was always just?
Sarpedon: I too asked myself, seeing that bewildered eye, if I was speaking with the man who once was Bellerophon. To your father something has happened. He is not only old. He is not only sad and alone. Your father is atoning for the Chimera. Your father accuses the injustice of the gods who wanted him to kill the Chimera. ‘From that day,’ he repeats, ‘when I reddened myself in the monster’s blood, I have no longer had a true life. I have sought enemies, tamed the Amazons, massacred the Solymi, I have ruled over the Lycians and planted a garden — but what is all this? Where is there another Chimera? Where is the strength of the arms that killed her? Sisyphus too and Glaucus my father were young and just – then both of them getting old, the gods betrayed them, let them become like beasts and die. He who once faced the Chimera, how can he resign himself to die? This, says your father, who one day was Bellerophon.
Hippolochus: From Sisyphus, who enchained the child Thanatos, to Glaucus who fed horses with living men, our breed has violated many boundaries. But these are men of the past and from a monstrous age. The chimera was the last monster they saw. Our earth now is just and pious.
Sarpedon: Do you believe it, Hippolochus? Do you believe that it was enough to have killed her? Our father—I can call him that—should know. And yet he is as sad as a god—as a forsaken and white-haired god—and he crosses countryside and swamps talking to these dead. He lacks the arm that killed her. He lacks the pride of Glaucus and Sisyphus, precisely now that he, like his fathers, has attained the limit, the end. Their audaciousness torments him. He knows that nevermore will another Chimera wait for him among the rocks. And he calls the gods in defiance.
Hippolochus: I know his son, Sarpedon, but I do not understand these things. Upon the earth henceforth made pious, one should get old in peace. In a young man, almost a boy, like you, Sarpedon, I understand the tumult of the blood. But only in a young man. But for honourable causes. And not to set oneself against the gods.
Sarpedon: But he, he who knows what is a young man and an old man, has seen other days. He has seen the gods, as we see each other. He tells of terrible things. And who wouldn’t want to listen to him? Bellerophon has seen things which don’t happen often.
Hippolochus: I know, Sarpedon, I know, but that world is past. When I was a child, he told me of those too.
Sarpedon: Only that then, he was not talking with the dead. At that time they were fables. Today, on the contrary, the destinies he touches become his own.5 They are facts that you know. But you don’t know the coldness, the bewildered look, as from him who is nothing anymore and knows everything. They are stories of Lydia and Phrygia, old stories, without justice or piety. Do you know the one of the Silenus that a god provoked and defeated on mount Celaenae, and then killed by slaying him like the butcher slaughtering a young goat? From the cave a torrent now wells up, as if it were his blood. The story of the mother petrified, turned into a weeping rock, because it pleased a goddess to kill her sons, one by one, with arrows. And the story of Arachne, who by Athena’s hatred was struck with horror and became a spider. These are things that happened. The gods did them.
Hippolochus: And it is well. What does it matter? It is no use thinking about it. Of those destinies nothing remains.
Sarpedon: There remains the torrent, the rock, the horror. There remain the dreams. Bellerophon cannot take a step without striking a corpse, a hatred, a pool of blood, from the times when all happened and it was not dreams. His arm at that time weighed in the world, and killed.6
Hippolochus: He too was cruel, then.
Sarpedon: He was just and pious. He killed Chimeras. And now that he is old and tired, the gods abandon him.
Hippolochus: For that he wanders through the fields?
Sarpedon: He is the son of Glaucus and of Sisyphus. He fears the caprice and the ferocity of the gods. He feels himself becoming like a beast and does not want to die. ‘Boy,’he says to me, ‘here is the mockery and the treachery: first they take away from you all strength and then they are indignant if you are less than a man. If you want to live, stop living.’
Hippolochus: And why doesn’t he kill himself, he who knows these things?
Sarpedon: Nobody kills himself. Death is destiny. One can only wish it, Hippolochus.
III. The Blind
Nothing happened in Thebes in which the blind prophet Tiresias did not play a part. Shortly after this conversation, the misfortunes of Oedipus began — that is, his eyes were opened, and he himself dashed them out in horror.7
Oedipus: Old Tiresias, must I believe what they say, that the gods blinded you out of envy?
Tiresias: If it is true that everything comes to us from the gods, you must believe it.
Oedipus: You, what do you say?
Tiresias: That there is too much talk about the gods. Being blind is a misfortune no different from being alive. I have always seen mishaps fall in their own time where they had to fall.
Oedipus: But then, the gods, what do they do?
Tiresias: The world is older than them. It was already filling space, and it bled, it enjoyed, it was the only god—when time was still not born. Things themselves reigned then. Things happened. Now through the gods everything is made into words, illusion, threats. But the gods can give annoyance, bring them together or pull them apart. Not touch them, not change them. They came too late.
Oedipus: Precisely you, a priest, say this?
Tiresias: If I did not know at least this, I would not be a priest. Take a boy who bathes in the Asopus. It is a summer morning. The boy comes out of the water, goes back in happily, dives and dives again, then he is taken ill and drowns. What do the gods have to do with this? Should he attribute his end to the gods or else the pleasure he enjoyed? Neither the one nor the other. Something happened—which is neither good nor evil, something which has no name—then the gods will give it a name.
Oedipus: And to give a name, to explain things, seems little to you, Tiresias?
Tiresias: You are young, Oedipus, and like the gods who are young you yourself clear up things and name them.8 You still don’t know that beneath the earth there is stone, and that the bluest sky is the emptiest. For him who like me does not see, all things are a blow, nothing else.
Oedipus: But yet you have lived practicing the gods.9 Seasons, pleasures, human miseries have occupied you for a long time. They tell more than one fable about you, as about a god. And one so strange, so unusual, that yet it must have a meaning — maybe the one of the clouds in the sky.
Tiresias: I have lived long. I have lived so much that every story I listen to seems to be my own. Which meaning do you say about the clouds in the sky?
Oedipus: A presence within the void…
Tiresias: But what is this fable which you think has a meaning?
Oedipus: Have you always been what you are, old Tiresias?
Tiresias: Ah, I catch you.10 The story of the snakes. When I was a woman for seven years. Well, what do you find in this story?
Oedipus: To you it happened and you know it. But without a god these things do not happen.
Tiresias: You believe it? Everything can happen on earth. There is nothing unusual. At that time I felt disgust about the things of sex—it seemed to me that the spirit, the sanctity, my character, would be debased by it. When I saw the two snakes enjoy and bite each other on the moss, I could not hold back my vexation: I touched them with my stick. Shortly afterwards I was a woman, and for years my pride was constrained to submit. The things of the world are stone, Oedipus.
Oedipus: But is the sex of woman truly so base?
Tiresias: Not at all. There are no base things, except to the gods. There are annoyances, disgusts and illusions, which, on touching the stone, are dispelled. Here the stone was the strength of sex, its ubiquity and omnipresence under all forms and changes. From man to woman and vice versa (seven years later I saw the two snakes again), what I did not want to consent to with my spirit was done to me through violence or through lust, and I, disdainful man or debased woman, I broke loose like a woman and was abject like a man, and I knew everything of sex: I reached the point where as a man I sought men and as a woman women.
Oedipus: You see therefore that a god has taught you something.
Tiresias: There is no god above sex. It is the stone, I tell you. Many gods are wild beasts, but the snake is the oldest of all the gods. When he conceals himself in the ground, there you have the image of sex. There is in it life and death. What god can incarnate and include so much?
Oedipus: But you yourself. You said so.
Tiresias: Tiresias is old, and is not a god. When he was young, he was ignorant. Sex is ambiguous and always equivocal. It is a half which appears a whole. Man succeeds in incarnating it, in living inside it like the good swimmer in the water, but meanwhile he has got old, he has touched the stone. At the end one idea, one illusion is left to him: that the other sex comes out of it satiated. Well, don’t believe it: I know that for all it is a wasted fatigue.
Oedipus: To refute what you say is not easy. It is not for nothing that your story begins with the snakes. But it begins also with the disgust, with the annoyance of sex. And what would you say to a fit man who swore to you that he ignored disgust?
Tiresias: That he is not a fit man. He is still a child.
Oedipus: I too, Tiresias, have had encounters on the road to Thebes. And in one of these we talked of man—from childhood to death—we too have touched the stone. From that day I was husband and I was father, and King of Thebes. There is nothing ambiguous or wasted, for me, in my days.
Tiresias: You are not alone, Oedipus, in believing this. But the stone is not touched with words. May the gods protect you. I too speak to you and am old. Only the blind man knows darkness. It seems to me that I live outside time, that I have always lived, and I no longer believe in the days. In me too there is something that enjoys and that bleeds.
Oedipus: You said that this something was a god. Why, good Tiresias, don’t you try praying to it?
Tiresias: We all pray to some god, but what happens has no name. The boy drowned on a summer morning, what does he know of the gods? What does it help him to pray? There is a big snake in every day of life, and it conceals itself and watches us. Have you ever asked yourself, Oedipus, why the unhappy, as they get old, go blind?
Oedipus: I pray to the gods that it does not happen to me.
IV. The Werewolf
Zeus changed Lycaon, lord of Arcadia, into a wolf as a punishment for inhumanity. But the myth does not say where and how Lycaon died.11
First Hunter: It is not the first time that a beast has been killed.
Second Hunter: But it is the first time that we have killed a man.
First Hunter: Who was thinking of his name and the stories of another time? He has the heart of a beast besides the hair. For a long time in these brushwoods a similar or bigger wolf has not been seen.12
Second Hunter: Me, I think of his name. I was still a boy and they were already talking about him. They told unbelievable things of when he was a man––that he tried to slaughter the Lord of the mounts.13
First Hunter: Now it is done. We must skin him and go back to the plain. Think of the feast which awaits us.14
Second Hunter: I ask myself if, once his skin taken, we should bury him. He was a man once.15
First Hunter: He was already a wolf when the mountains were still desert. He had got older than the hoary and mouldy trunks. Who remembers that he had a name and was somebody? If we want to be frank, he should have been dead for a long time.
Second Hunter: But his body left unburied… He was Lycaon, a hunter like us.
First Hunter: To any one of us can befall death on the mounts, and nobody would find us any more if not the rain or the vulture. If he was truly a hunter, he died badly.
Second Hunter: He defended himself as an old man, with his eyes. But you deep down, you don’t believe that he was your own kind? You don’t believe in his name. If you believed it you would not want to insult his corpse, because you’d know that he too despised the dead, that he too lived wild and inhuman — not for anything else the Lord of the mounts turned him into a wild beast.
First Hunter: They tell about him that he cooked his own kind.
Second Hunter: I know men who have done much less and are wolves — they are lacking only the howling and skulking in the woods. Are you so sure of yourself that you don’t sometimes feel Lycaon like him? All of us others have days when, if a god touched us, we’d howl and jump at the throat of anyone who resists us. What is it that saves us if not that by waking up we find again these hands and this mouth and this voice? But he had no escape — he left for ever the human eyes and the houses. Now at least that he is dead, he should have peace.
First Hunter: I do not believe that he needed peace. Who more in peace than him, when he could squat upon the rocks and howl at the moon? I’ve lived enough in the woods to know that the trunks and the wild beasts do not fear anything sacred and do not look at the sky but to rustle or to yawn. There is even something that makes them equal to the lords of the sky: they have no remorse.
Second Hunter: To hear you, it seems that the wolf’s is a high destiny.
First Hunter: I do not know if high or low, but did you ever hear of a beast or of a plant that turned itself into a human being? On the contrary all these places are full of men and women touched by the god — this one becomes bush, this one bird, this one wolf. And however impious he was, whatever crime he had committed, he gained not having red hands any longer, he escaped remorse and hope, he did not remember he was a man.16 Do the gods feel otherwise?
Second Hunter: A punishment is a punishment, and he who inflicts has compassion at least in this that he removes from the impious the uncertainty and of remorse makes destiny. Even if the beast does not remember the past and lives only for its prey and death, there remains its name, there remains what it was. There is old Callisto buried on the hill. Who knows still her crime? The lords of the sky punished her much. Of a woman — she was beautiful, they say — to make a bear who growls and sheds tears, who in the night out of fear wants to go back to the houses.16 Here is a wild beast who had no peace. The son came and killed her with his lance and the gods did not move. There are some too who say that, repentant, they turned her into a cluster of stars. But the body remains and that is buried.
First Hunter: What do you mean? I know the stories. And if Callisto did not know how to resign herself, it is not the fault of the gods. It is like someone who goes melancholically to a banquet or gets drunk at a funeral. If I were a wolf, I would be a wolf even in my sleep.
Second Hunter: You don’t know the way of blood. The gods add nothing to you nor take anything away. Solely, with a light touch, they nail you where you reached. What at first was wish, was choice, reveals itself to you as destiny. That is what it means: to become a wolf. But you remain the one who ran from the houses, you remain the old Lycaon.
First Hunter: Then you mean that Lycaon suffered like a man whom one would chase with dogs?
Second Hunter: He was old, finished: you yourself agree that he did not know how to defend himself. While he was dying without voice on the stones, I thought of these old beggars who sometimes stop in front of the court-yards, and the dogs strangle themselves with their chains to bite them. That too occurs, in the houses down there. Let us even say that he lived like a wolf. But, dying and seeing us, he understood he was a man. He told us with his eyes.
First Hunter: Friend, and you think it matters to him to rot underground like a man, when the last thing he saw were hunting men?
Second Hunter: There is a peace beyond death. A common fate. It matters to the living, it matters to the wolf that is in us all. It has fallen to us to kill him. Let us at least follow the custom and leave the insult to the gods. We shall go back to the houses with clean hands.
V. The Guest
Phrygia and Lydia were countries about which the Greeks liked to tell terrible stories. There can be no doubt that they all took place in Greece, but that was in earlier times. No need to say who won the reaping contest. 17
Lityerses: Here is the field, stranger. From here it is not possible for you to make off. And as you have eaten and drunk with us, our earth will drink your blood. Next year the Meander will see a wheat tighter and thicker than this one.
Heracles: You have killed many in the past on this field?
Lityerses: Enough. But nobody who had your strength or was good enough alone.
Heracles: Who taught you this custom?
Lityerses: It has always been done. If you don’t nourish the earth, how can you ask it to nourish you?
Heracles: Already this year your wheat seems to me in full vigour. Whom did you slaughter?
Lityerses: No stranger came to us. We killed an old servant and a goat. It was flabby blood which the earth barely felt. See the spike, how empty it is. The body which we lacerate must first sweat, foam in the sun. For that we’ll make you reap, carry the sheaves, stream with fatigue, and only at the end, when your blood is boiling brisk and pure, will it be the moment to slit your throat.
Heracles: Your gods, what do they say?
Lityerses: There is no god above the field. There is only the earth, the Mother, the Cave which is always waiting, and shakes only under the flow of blood. Tonight, stranger, you will yourself be in the cave.
Heracles: You other Phrygians, you don’t go down into the cave?
Lityerses: We come out of it when we’re born and there is no hurry to go back.
Heracles: I understand. And thus the excrement of blood is necessary to your gods.
Lityerses: No gods, but the earth, stranger. You, you don’t live on the earth?
Heracles: Our gods are not on earth, but they rule the sea and the earth, the forest and the cloud, as the shepherd keeps his flock and the master commands his servants. They keep themselves separate, on the mount, like the thoughts inside the eyes of one who is speaking or like the clouds in the sky. They do not need blood.
Lityerses: I don’t understand you, foreign guest. The cloud, the rock, the cave have for us the same name and cannot be separated. The blood the mother has given us we give back to her in sweat, in excrement, in death. It is really true that you come from far away. Those gods of yours are nothing.
Heracles: They are a breed of immortals. They have conquered the forest, the earth and its monsters. They have driven into the cave all those like you who shed blood to nourish the earth.
Lityerses: Oh you see, your gods know what they are doing. They too have had to satiate the earth. And besides you are too robust to have been born of an earth not satiated. But don’t you fear death on the sheaves? Maybe you hope to run off through the furrows like a quail or a squirrel?
Heracles: If I have understood well it is not death but a return to the Mother and like a hospitable gift. All these boors who tire themselves out on the field will hail with prayers and with songs him who will give his blood for them. It is a great honour.
Lityerses: Guest, thank you. I assure you that the servant we slaughtered last year did not say that. He was old and finished and still we had to tie him up with bark bands, and for a long time he struggled under the sickles, so much that before he fell he had already lost all his blood.
Heracles: This time, Lityerses, it will go better. And tell me, the unfortunate man killed, what do you do with him?
Lityerses: He is lacerated while still half alive, and we scatter the pieces over the fields to touch the Mother. We keep the bleeding head, wrapping it in spikes and flowers, and among songs and cheerfulness we throw it into the Meander. Because the Mother is not only earth but, as I have told you, also cloud and water.
Heracles: You know many things, you Lityerses, not for nothing are you the lord of the fields at Celaenae. And in Pessinus, tell me, do they kill many?
Lityerses: Everywhere, stranger, they kill under the sun. The earth is alive, and must also be nourished.
Heracles: But why must the one you kill be a stranger? The earth, the cave that made you should still prefer to take back the juices that most resemble her. You too, when you eat, don’t you prefer the bread and the wine from your field?
Lityerses: I like you, stranger, you take to heart our good as if you were our son. But reflect a moment: why do we endure the fatigue and the effort of this work? To live, no? And so it is just that we stay alive to enjoy the harvest and that the others die. You are not a peasant.
Heracles: But wouldn’t it be more just to find the way to put an end to the killings and that all, strangers and countrymen, eat the wheat? To kill for one last time him who alone will make the earth fruitful for ever and the clouds and the strength of the sun on this plain?
Lityerses: You are not a peasant, I see it. You don’t even know that the earth begins again at every solstice and that the course of the year wears everything out.
Heracles: But there will be on this plain someone who has been nourished, going back to his fathers, by all the juices of the seasons, who is so rich and so strong and with so generous a blood that he should suffice once for all to renew the earth from the past seasons?
Lityerses: You make me laugh, stranger. It seems almost that you are talking about me. I’m the only one in Celaenae who, through my fathers, has always lived here. I am the lord, and you know it.
Heracles: I am talking in fact about you. We shall reap, Lityerses. I came from Greece for this deed of blood. And tonight you will go back to the cave.
Lityerses: You want to kill me, on my own field?
Heracles: I want to fight with you to the death.
Lityerses: Do you know at least how to handle the sickle, stranger?
Heracles: Don’t worry, Lityerses.
VI. The Bonfires
Even the Greeks practiced human sacrifice. Every peasant culture has done so, and all the cultures were at one time peasant cultures.18
Son: Our bonfire, nobody sees it.19
Father: We make it, it does not matter. Everywhere this night there are bonfires. O Zeus, receive this offering of milk and sweet honey; we are poor shepherds and of the flock not ours we cannot dispose. May this fire which burns drive away the misfortunes and as it is covering itself with spirals of smoke, let it cover us with clouds. Wet and sprinkle, boy. It is enough if they kill a calf in the big farms. If it rains, it rains everywhere. You must sprinkle towards the sea. The rains come from the sea.
Son: Father, why is it not raining now?20
Father: They have lit the bonfires.21 It is the feast, boy. If it were raining, it would put them out. To whom is it convenient? It will rain tomorrow.
Son: And on the bonfires while they were still burning, it has never rained?
Father: You were still not born, and I neither, when they were already lighting the bonfires. Always this night. They say that one time it did rain, on the bonfire. But that was when man lived more justly than now, and even the kings’ sons were shepherds. All this earth was like a threshing floor, then, clean and smoothed, and it obeyed to King Athamas. One worked and lived and there was no need to hide the young goats from the master. They say that terrible dog-days came and thus the meadows and the wells dried up and people died. The bonfires were of no use at all. Then Athamas asked for advice. But he was old and had at home since a short time a young wife, who commanded him, and she began to fill his head that it was not the moment to show himself flabby, to lose his credit. They had prayed and sprinkled? Yes. They had killed the calf and the bull, many bulls? Yes. What had resulted? Nothing.
Then, let them offer the sons. But not her sons of her own, who did not have any: figure it out; the two already grown sons of the first wife, two boys who worked in the fields all day. And Athamas, the dolt, decides: he had them called. They understand, it’s known, kings’ sons are not silly, and so to their heels. And with them disappeared the first clouds that, hardly having heard such a thing, a god had sent over the countryside. And immediately that witch saying: ‘You see? The idea was just, the clouds were already there; here we have to slaughter someone.’ And so much does she that people decide to seize Athamas and burn him. They prepare the fire, light it, conduct Athamas bound and adorned with flowers like an ox, and when they are about to throw him in the bonfire, the weather breaks, there is thunder, lightning, and down comes a god’s water. The countryside is reborn. The water puts out the bonfire and Athamas, good man, pardons everyone, even his wife. Beware, boy, of women. It’s easier to recognise the female snake from the snake.
Son: And the king’s sons?
Father: Nothing was known of them again. But two boys like those will have found some good to do.
Son: And if at that time they were just, why did they want to burn two boys?
Father: Silly, you don’t know what dog-days are. I have seen some, and your grandfather saw some. Winter is nothing. In winter one suffers, but one knows that it’s doing the crops good. Not the dog-days. The dog-days burn. Everything dies, and hunger and thirst change a man. Take one who hasn’t eaten: he is quarrelsome. And you think these people who all agreed with each other and everyone had his land, used to doing good and being well. The wells dry up, the wheat burns, they are hungry and thirsty. But they become fierce beasts.
Son: They were bad people.
Father: Not worse than we are. Our dog-days are our masters. And there is no rain that can set us free.
Son: I do not like these fires any more. Why do the gods need them? Is it true that at one time they always burned somebody on them?
Father: They moved slowly. They burned on them cripples, idlers and insane people. They burned on them useless people. People who stole on the fields. Anyway the gods are contented with it. Good or bad, it rained.
Son: I do not understand what taste the gods found for that. If it rained just the same. Also Athamas. They have put out the pyre.
Father: You see, the gods are the masters. They are like the masters. You want them to see one of their own burning? Amongst themselves they help each other. Us on the contrary nobody helps. Whether it is raining or fine, what does it matter to the gods? Now we’re lighting the fires and they say it brings rain. What does it matter to our masters? Have you ever seen them come to the fields?
Son: Me, no.
Father: And so. If once a bonfire was enough to make it rain, burning some vagabond on it to save a crop, how many masters’ houses would have to be set on fire, how many killed in the streets and on the squares before the world turns just again and we can tell our word?22
Son: They are unjust, the gods.
Father: If it were not thus, they would not be gods. One who does not work, how do you want him to spend his time? When there were no masters and people lived with justice, one had to kill someone from time to time to let them enjoy themselves. They are made thus. But in our time, they don’t need that any more. There are so many of us in a bad way that it is enough for them to watch us.
Son: Vagabonds them too.
Father: Vagabonds. You said justly.
Son: What did they say while burning on the bonfire the crippled boys? Did they shout a lot?
Father: It is not so much the shouting. It is who shouts, that counts. A cripple or a wicked one don’t do any good. But it is a little worse when a man who has children sees the idlers fatten. That is unjust.23
Son: I do not want to, you understand, I do not want to. They do well, the masters, to eat our marrow, if we have been so unjust among ourselves. They do well, the gods, to watch us suffer.