Friday, January 18, 2008

Sortes Vergilianae

"If I passed my memories in review, scant happiness was there, no serenity, much harshness, steely exaltation, labor, hunger, filth, danger, and moments torn as if slashed by knives; a host of cherished dead whose faces memory averts (because they were often worth more than I was), the women of a night or of a season, the one I thought I loved who betrayed me while I was in prison, and the one who was faithful but died of typhus during a winter of famine, and I arrived too late to see her again, having crossed three hundred miles of snow; there was nothing left for me to keep of her, the neighbors had filched the sheets from the deathbed, the bed boards, the four books we owned, the toothbrush. I called together the taciturn bearded men, the women whose faces were stiff with guilt, the nail-biting children. 'Citizens!' I said. 'You have stolen nothing from us. You have taken what is yours. The belongings of the dead are for the living, and for the poorest first. And we are scarcely the living! We live for the men of the future...' I was a bad speaker in those days. Some of them came up to me and shook my hand, saying, 'Thanks, citizen, for your kind words, your human words. What do you want us to give back?' I cried: 'NOTHING!' It was then that I understood the grandeur of the word nothing. All words are human, I reflected, even the ugliest of them, and nothing is left."

Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years
(trans. Richard Greeman, New York Review Books, 2008)