The Flood, The Beast & The Witches

Cesare Pavese


These three dia­logues by Cesare Pavese were filmed by Jean-​Marie Straub (and, in the case of Quei loro incon­tri, Danièle Huil­let) in the clear­ings of Tus­can woods. They are spo­ken by gods in mod­ern dress amid blots of light and trees that stand firm, immor­tal. The films are Quei loro incon­tri (2006), Le Genou d’Artémide (2008), and Le streghe – Femmes entre elles (2009). We present Pavese’s prose here, as adapted in the films, in a pre­vi­ously unpub­lished trans­la­tion by Tag Gallagher.

— Lumen eds.

I. The Flood

Quei loro incon­tri: third dia­logue, from Pavese’s ‘Il diluvio’

Hamadryad: I won­der what the mor­tals are say­ing about this water.

Satyr: What do they know? They accept it. Some even hope for a big­ger har­vest from it.

Hamadryad: At this hour the flood­ing rivers have started to uproot the plants. Now the rain falls every­where on water.

Satyr: They’re hud­dling in caves and moun­tain hov­els. They’re lis­ten­ing to the rain. They’re think­ing about the val­ley peo­ple who’re fight­ing the water, and they’re delud­ing themselves.

Hamadryad: All night long they’ll delude them­selves. But tomor­row, in the fear­ful light, when they see one sin­gle sea stretch­ing to the hori­zon, and the moun­tains shrunk, they won’t go back inside the caves. They’ll look around. They’ll throw a sack on their head and look around.

Satyr: You con­fuse them with wild beasts. No mor­tal can under­stand he’s dying or look at death. They need to run, think, talk. To speak with those who are left.

Hamadryad: But this time no one’s left. So how will they manage?

Satyr: I expect them here. When they know they’re all con­demned, all of them, they’ll devote them­selves to cel­e­brat­ing, you’ll see. They’ll even come look­ing for us.

Hamadryad: Us? How’re we involved?

Satyr: A lot. We’re the cel­e­bra­tion, we’re life for them. They’ll seek life with us up to the last second.

Hamadryad: I don’t under­stand what life we can give them. We can’t even die. All we can do is watch. Watch and know. But you say they don’t watch and can’t resign them­selves. What else can they ask of us?

Satyr: Many things, lit­tle goat. For them we are like wild beasts. Beasts are born and die like leaves. They spot us van­ish­ing between the branches and so they think of us as sort of divine — that when we flee and hide we’re the life that endures in the woods — a life like theirs but ever­last­ing, richer. They’ll search for us, I tell you. It’ll be the last hope they have.

Hamadryad: With this water? And what will they do?

Satyr: Don’t you know what hope is? They’ll think the woods where we are too can’t be sub­merged. They’ll tell them­selves that all humans can’t dis­ap­pear, oth­er­wise what sense is there in hav­ing been born and know­ing us? They’ll know that the great ones, the Olympians, want them dead but that we, like them, like the lit­tle beasts, are ulti­mately life, earth, the real thing that mat­ters. They’ll turn the sea­sons into cel­e­bra­tions, and we are the celebration.

Hamadryad: It’s con­ve­nient. For them the hope, for us the des­tiny. But it’s stupid.

Satyr: Not entirely. They’ll save something.

Hamadryad: Yes, but who pro­voked the great gods? Who cre­ated all this dis­or­der, that even the sun veils its face? It’s their doing, I think. It serves them right.

Satyr: Come on, lit­tle goat, do you really believe such things? Don’t you think that, if they’d really vio­lated life, it’d be enough for life itself to pun­ish them, with no need for the Olympians to get involved with the flood? If some­one has vio­lated some­thing, believe me, it’s not they.

Hamadryad: Mean­while they’re doing the dying. How will they feel tomor­row when they know what’s happening?

Satyr: Feel the tor­rent, lit­tle one. Tomor­row we’ll be under water too. You’ll see ugly things, you who love to watch. Luck­ily we can’t die.

Hamadryad: Some­times I’m not so sure about that. I ask myself what it would be like to die. This is the only thing we’re really miss­ing. We know every­thing and don’t know this sim­ple thing. I’d like to try it, and then wake up, of course.

Satyr: Lis­ten to her! But dying is pre­cisely that — not know­ing you’re dead. And that’s what this flood is: so many dying that no one’s left to know it. So they’ll come look­ing for us and will tell us to save them, and they’ll want to be like us, like plants, like rocks — like things, things with­out feel­ings that are mere des­tiny. In them they’ll be saved. As the water recedes, rocks and tree trunks will reap­pear, like it used to be. And the mor­tals ask only for what used to be.

Hamadryad: Strange peo­ple! They treat des­tiny and the future as though they’re the past.

Satyr: This is what hope means. To give des­tiny a name to remem­ber it by.

Hamadryad: And you really think they’ll turn them­selves into tree trunks and rocks?

Satyr: They know how to tell tales, the mor­tals! They’ll live in the future accord­ing to which the ter­ror of tonight and tomor­row will have become fan­tasies for them. They’ll be wild beasts and rocks and plants. They’ll be gods. They’ll dare to kill the gods to see them born again. They’ll give them­selves a past, to escape death. There’s noth­ing but these two things — hope or destiny.

Hamadryad: If this is so, I can’t pity them. It must be won­der­ful to turn your­self into any­thing you want capriciously.

Satyr: Yes, it’s won­der­ful. But don’t think they can do it capri­ciously. The most extra­or­di­nary sal­va­tion they find blindly, when they’re already in destiny’s crush­ing claws. They don’t have time to indulge in caprice. They only know how to pay with them­selves. This they can do.

Hamadryad: At least this flood may serve to teach them what games and cel­e­bra­tions are. Our capri­cious­ness is imposed on us immor­tals by des­tiny, and we know it. Why can’t humans learn to live caprice like an eter­nal instant in their mis­ery? Why don’t they under­stand that it’s pre­cisely their ephemer­al­ness that makes them precious?

Satyr: One can’t have every­thing, lit­tle one. We who know how don’t have pref­er­ences. And those who live unex­pected, unique instants don’t know their value. They’d like to have our eter­nity. Such is the world.

Hamadryad: Tomor­row they’ll know some­thing, even they. And the stones and clods of earth which will one day turn to the light will not live in hope alone or in anguish. You’ll see that the new world will have a spark of divin­ity in even its most ephemeral mortals.

Satyr: God will­ing, lit­tle goat. I’d like that too.

II. The Beast

Le Genou d’Artémide, from Pavese’s ‘La belva’

Endymion: Lis­ten, passerby. Since you’re a stranger, I can tell you these things. Don’t be afraid of my crazed eyes. See that moun­tain? It’s Lat­mos. I’ve climbed it many times at night, when it was darker, and waited for dawn among its beech trees. Yet I feel I’ve never touched it.

The Stranger: Who can say he’s ever touched what he passes?

Endymion: Some­times I think we’re like the wind that runs impal­pa­bly. Or like the dreams of some­one sleep­ing. Do you like, stranger, to sleep dur­ing the day?

The Stranger: I sleep, in any case, when I’m sleepy and fall down.

Endymion: And in your sleep does it hap­pen to you who walk the roads to lis­ten to the rustling wind and the birds, the ponds, the buzzing, the water’s voice? Don’t you feel, while sleep­ing, that you’re never alone?

The Stranger: Friend, I wouldn’t know. I’ve always lived alone.

Endymion: O stranger, I no longer find peace in sleep. I believe I’ve slept for­ever, yet I know that it’s not true. […] In my bed now I keep an ear out and I’m ready to jump, and I’ve these eyes, these eyes, like some­one star­ing into the dark. I feel I’ve always lived like this.

The Stranger: Have you been miss­ing someone?

Endymion: ‘Some­one?’ O stranger, do you believe that we are mortals?

The Stranger: Some­one you love is dead?

Endymion: Not ‘some­one.’ Stranger, when I climb Lat­mos I’m not a mor­tal any­more. I know I’m not dream­ing, for long now I don’t sleep. Tonight I was there wait­ing for her.

The Stranger: Who was to come?

Endymion: Let’s not say her name. Let’s not. She has no name. Or she has many, I know. Man com­pan­ion, do you know the hor­ror of the for­est when a noc­tur­nal clear­ing opens up? Or don’t you? When you think at night of the clear­ing you saw and crossed by day, and there there’s a flower, a berry you know, sway­ing in the wind, and this berrry, this flower, is a wild thing, untouch­able, mor­tal, among all the wild things. Do you under­stand? A flower that’s like a wild beast? Com­pan­ion, have you ever watched with fright and desire the nature of a she-​wolf a doe, a snake?

The Stranger: You mean the sex of the liv­ing beast?

Endymion: Yes, but that’s not enough. Have you ever known a per­son who was many things in one, who car­ried them with her so that her every ges­ture, every thought you form of her con­tains an infin­ity of things of your earth and your sky, and con­tains words, mem­o­ries of days gone by that you’ll never know, future days, cer­tain­ties and another earth and another sky which is not yours to possess?

The Stranger: I’ve heard tell of this.

Endymion: O stranger, and what if this per­son is the beast, the wild thing, the untouch­able nature which has no name?

The Stranger: You speak of ter­ri­ble things.

Endymion: But that’s not enough. You lis­ten to me, as is right. And if you walk the roads, you know that the earth is all full of the divine and the ter­ri­ble. If I speak to you, it’s because, as way­far­ers and strangers, we too are a bit divine.

The Stranger: Cer­tainly, I’ve seen many things. And some of them ter­ri­ble. But you needn’t go far. Maybe it’ll help if I tell you that the immor­tals know the path to your hearth.

Endymion: So you do know, and can believe me. I was sleep­ing one evening on Lat­mos — it was night — I’d been wan­der­ing late, and was sleep­ing seated against a trunk. I woke up under the moon — in my dream I’d shiv­ered think­ing I was there, in the clear­ing — and I saw her. I saw her look­ing at me, with those slightly side­long eyes, eyes steady, trans­par­ent, big within. I didn’t know it then, nor the next day, but I was already her thing, caught in the cir­cle of her eyes, in the space she occu­pied, of the clear­ing, of the moun­tain. She smiled at me guard­edly. I said ‘Lady’ to her. She frowned like a girl a bit wild, as if she’d under­stood I was stu­pe­fied, […] and, stretch­ing out her hand, she touched my hair. She touched me hes­i­tantly, and smiled, an incred­i­ble smile, mor­tal. I nearly fell pros­trate, I thought of all her names. ‘You must never wake up,’ she told me. ‘You mustn’t move. I’ll come see you again.’ And she went away through the clear­ing. When light came — a light rather lived, veiled — I looked from on high onto the plain and under­stood that never more would I live among men. I was no more one of them. I was wait­ing for the night.

The Stranger: Incred­i­ble things you tell me, Endymion. Incred­i­ble in that — since you no doubt went back to the moun­tain — you live and walk still, and the wild one, the lady of the names, hasn’t yet made you hers.

Endymion: I am hers, stranger.

The Stranger: I mean… don’t you know the story of the shep­herd torn to pieces by dogs, the indis­creet one, the stag-​man?

Endymion: O stranger, I know every­thing about her. Because we’ve talked and talked and I was pre­tend­ing to be asleep, always, every night, and I didn’t touch her hand just as one doesn’t touch the lioness or the green water of the pond, or the thing that is most ours, that we carry in our heart. Lis­ten. She’s stand­ing in front of me. A thin girl, not smil­ing, watch­ing me. Her big trans­par­ent eyes have seen other things. They still see them. They belong to her eyes, these things. In these eyes there is the berry and the beast, there’s howl­ing, death, a cruel tan­gle. I know of blood spilled, flesh rent, vora­cious earth, soli­tude. For her the wild one this is soli­tude. For her the wild beast is soli­tude. Her caress is the caress one gives a dog or tree trunk. But, stranger, she looks at me, looks at me — she’s a thin girl, like maybe you’ve seen in your village.

The Stranger: Of your life as a man, Endymion, you’ve not spoken?

Endymion: Stranger, you know ter­ri­ble things, and you don’t know that the wild and the divine efface the man?

The Stranger: When you climb Lat­mos, you’re no longer mor­tal, I know. But the immor­tals know how to be alone. And you don’t want soli­tude. What then did you ask of her?

Endymion: That she smile again. And this time to be blood spilled in front of her, to be flesh in her dog’s mouth.

The Stranger: And what did she tell you?

Endymion: ‘You must never wake up,’ she told me.

The Stranger: O mor­tal, the day you’re actu­ally awake you’ll know why she’s spared you her smile.

Endymion: I know why now, o stranger, o you who speak like a god.

The Stranger: The divine and the ter­ri­ble run over the earth, and we walk the roads. You said so yourself.

Endymion: O way­far­ing god, her sweet­ness is like the day­break, it’s earth and sky revealed. And it is divine. But for oth­ers for things and beasts, she the wild one has a short laugh, a com­mand which anni­hi­lates. And no one has ever touched her knee.

The Stranger: Endymion, resign your­self in your mor­tal heart. Nei­ther god nor man has touched her. Her voice which is rau­cous and mater­nal is all the wild one can give you.

Endymion: Yet.

The Stranger: Yet?

Endymion: As long as that moun­tain exists I’ll have no peace in sleep.

The Stranger: Every­one has the sleep he has, Endymion. And your sleep is infi­nite with voices and screams with earth and heaven and days. Sleep your sleep with courage, you have no other wealth. The wild soli­tude is yours. Love it as she loves it. And now, Endymion, I leave you. You’ll see her tonight.

Endymion: O way­far­ing god, I thank you.

The Stranger: Farewell. But you mustn’t wake up any­more, remember.

III. The Witches

Le streghe – Femmes entre elles, from Pavese’s ‘Le streghe’

Circe: Believe me, Leucò, I didn’t under­stand right away. Some­times I get the for­mula wrong, some­times there’s amne­sia. And yet I’d touched him. The truth is I’d been wait­ing so long for him I wasn’t think­ing about it any­more. The moment I under­stood every­thing — he’d jumped up and grabbed his sword — I almost smiled, I felt so happy and at the same time dis­ap­pointed. I even thought I might at least escape fate. ‘After all he’s Odysseus,’ I thought, ‘some­one who wants to go home.’ I thought of putting him in a boat right away. Dear Leucò, he was wav­ing that sword — illy and brave like only a human can be — and I had to smile and look him in the eye as I do with them, and then to look sur­prised and draw back. I felt like a girl, like when we were chil­dren and were told what we’d do when grown up and we laughed. It all hap­pened like a dance. He took me by the wrists, raised his voice, I blushed but I was pale, Leucò — I clasped his knees and began my lines: ‘Who are you? What land gave birth to you…?’ Poor fel­low, I thought, he doesn’t know what he’s in for. He was tall, curly haired, hand­some, Leu­cothea. What a stu­pen­dous pig he’d have made, or a wolf.

Leu­cothea: But all this you told him, in the year he spent with you?

Circe: O child, you don’t talk about the things of des­tiny with a human. They think they’ve said every­thing when they call it the iron chain, the final decree. They call us the fatal ladies, you know.

Leu­cothea: They don’t know how to smile.

Circe: Yes. Some can laugh in face of des­tiny, can laugh after­ward, but at the time they have to be seri­ous or they die. They don’t know how to joke about divine things, and lis­ten to them­selves recit­ing lines like us. Their life is so short, they can’t bear to do things already done or known about. Even he, Odysseus the coura­geous, if I said one word about this, he’d stop lis­ten­ing to me and would think of Penelope.

Leu­cothea: What a bore.

Circe: Yes but you see, I under­stand him. With Pene­lope he didn’t have to smile, with her every­thing, even the daily meal, was seri­ous and unre­hearsed — they might have been prepar­ing them­selves for death. You don’t know how much death attracts them. Yes, to die is a des­tiny per them, a rep­e­ti­tion, some­thing known, but they fool them­selves into think­ing it changes something.

Leu­cothea: Why then didn’t he want to become a pig?

Circe: Ah, Leu­cothea, he didn’t want even to become a god, and you know how much Calypso begged him to, that idiot. Odysseus was like that, nei­ther pig nor god, just a man, extremely intel­li­gent, and brave in face of destiny.

Leu­cothea: Tell me, dear, did you enjoy your­self a lot with him?

Circe: One thing, Leucò. None of us gods has ever wanted to become mor­tal, none has ever desired it. Yet this might be the nov­elty that would break the chain.

Leu­cothea: Would you like to?

Circe: What talk, Leucò… Odysseus didn’t under­stand why I smiled. He didn’t under­stand often even that I was smil­ing. Once I thought I’d explained to him why a beast is closer to us immor­tals than an intel­li­gent and brave man. The beast that eats, that mounts and doesn’t have mem­ory. He answered me that at home awaited him a dog, a poor dog that maybe was dead, and he told me its name. Imag­ine, Leucò, that dog had a name.

Leu­cothea: Also to us they give a name, those humans.

Circe: Many names gave me Odysseus while in my bed. Each time there was a name. At first it was like the noise of a beast of a pig or wolf, but he him­self bit by bit realised they were syl­la­bles of a sin­gle word. He called me by names of all the gods, of our sis­ters, names of the mother, of the things of life. It was like a strug­gle with me, with fate. He wanted to name me, to hold me to make me mor­tal. He wanted to break some­thing. Intel­li­gence and courage he put into it — he had that — but he never knew how to smile. He never knew what the smile of the gods is — of us who know destiny.

Leu­cothea: No human under­stands us or the beasts. I’ve seen them, your humans. Turned into wolves or pigs, they howl still like com­pletely human. It’s tor­ture. In their intel­li­gence they’re quite crude. You’ve played a lot with them?

Circe: I enjoy myself with them, Leucò. I enjoy them as I can. It wasn’t given to me to have a god in my bed, and of men only Odysseus. All the oth­ers I touch become beasts and go crazy, and chase after me like beasts. I take them, Leucò: their frenzy is no bet­ter or worse than a god’s love. I mustn’t even smile. I feel them get on top of me and then run off to their lairs. I don’t lower my eyes.

Leu­cothea: And Odysseus…?

Circe: I don’t ask myself who they are… Want to know who Odysseus was?

Leu­cothea: Tell me, Circe.

Circe: One evening he described his arrival at Aeaea, his com­pan­ions’ fear, the sen­tries posted by the ships. He told me all night they lis­tened to the roar­ing and snarling, lying in their cloaks on the sea shore. And then when day came, they saw beyond the wood rise a spi­ral of smoke, and they shouted for joy, recog­nis­ing their coun­try and houses. These things he told me smil­ing — the way humans smile — seated beside me in front of the fire. He said he wanted to for­get who he was and where he was and that evening he called me Penelope.

Leu­cothea: O Circe, was it so silly?

Circe: Leu­cothea, I too was silly and told him to cry.

Leu­cothea: Imagine!

Circe: No, but he didn’t cry. He knew Circe Ioves beasts, who don’t cry. He cried later, he cried the day I told him of the long voy­age that remained and the descent into Aver­nus and the black­ness of Ocean. The sort of cry­ing that cleans the eyes and gives strength, I Circe under­stand it too. But that evening he spoke to me — laugh­ing strangely — about his child­hood and des­tiny, and asked about me. He spoke play­fully, you understand.

Leu­cothea: I don’t understand.

Circe: Laugh­ing. With his mouth and voice. But his eyes full of mem­o­ries. And then he told me to sing. And singing I went to the loom and my rau­cous voice became the voice of his home and child­hood. I sweet­ened my voice, I was his Pene­lope. He put his head in his hands.

Leu­cothea: Who had the last laugh?

Circe: No one, Leu­cothea. I too that evening was mor­tal. I had a name: Pene­lope. That was the only time that with­out smil­ing I stared my fate in the face and low­ered my eyes.

Leu­cothea: And this man loved a dog?

Circe: A dog, a woman, his son, and a ship to sail the sea. And the count­less suc­ces­sion of days didn’t look like des­tiny to him, and he ran toward death know­ing what it was, and enriched the earth with words and deeds.

Leu­cothea: O Circe, I don’t have your eyes but now I too want to smile. You were naive. If you’d told him the wolf and pig mounted you like a beast, he’d have done it and turned into a beast too.

Circe: I did tell him. He barely gri­maced. After a moment he said, ‘So long as they’re not my companions.’

Leu­cothea: So he was jealous.

Circe: Not jeal­ous. He was loyal to them. He under­stood every­thing. Except the smile of us gods. That day he wept on my bed, he didn’t weep from fear, but because the last voy­age was imposed on him by fate, it was some­thing he already knew. ‘So why do it?’ he asked me, buck­ling his sword and walk­ing toward the sea. I brought him the black lamb and, while his com­pan­ions were weep­ing, he noticed a flight of swal­lows over the roof and said: ‘They’re going away too. But they don’t know what they’re doing. You, lady, do know.’

Leu­cothea: Noth­ing else he said to you?

Circe: Noth­ing else.

Leu­cothea: Circe, why didn’t you kill him?

Circe: Ah, I’m really stu­pid. Some­times I for­get what we gods know. And then I’m happy as if I were a girl. As if all these things hap­pened to the grown-​ups, the Olympians, and hap­pened like this, inex­orably but absurdly, unfore­seen. What I never fore­see is in fact that I have fore­seen, that I know each time what I’ll do and say — and so what I do and say always becomes new, sur­pris­ing, like a game, like that chess game Odysseus taught me, all rules and reg­u­la­tions but so beau­ti­ful and unpre­dictable, with its pieces of ivory. He was always telling me that that game is life. He said it’s a way of con­quer­ing time.

Leu­cothea: Too many things you remem­ber about him. You didn’t turn him into a pig or a wolf, you turned him into memory.

Circe: The mor­tal man, Leu­cothea, has noth­ing immor­tal but this. The mem­ory that he car­ries and the mem­ory he leaves behind. This is what names and words are. Con­fronted with mem­ory even they smile, resigned.

Leu­cothea: Circe, you too are say­ing words.

Circe: I know my des­tiny, Leu­cothea. Never fear.