The Flood, The Beast & The Witches
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 We present Pavese’s prose here, as adapted in the films, in a previously unpublished translation by Tag Gallagher.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.
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.
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.