Journal excerpt

You may have heard it,

from me or from someone else, that at one point in my life I was writing, or supposed to be writing, a PhD dissertation on Luigi Pirandello, the Italian author of some 28 plays and 241 stories (Le Novelle per un anno ).
It was in the sixties. Your grandmother, BM, and I, that is my wife, Josée, had been married for just a few years and we were living in Europe where I was mostly reading Pirandello’s plays and stories and helping Josée with our then three small children (M and S, Natacha wasn’t born yet).

Why didn’t I ever complete the dissertation? (Why haven’t I ever written a book?) It’s not for lack of words and ideas. I just never seem to reach the point in my thinking where I can stop and put it all down in a form that will be like an end to my thinking, in this case my thinking about Pirandello.

Couldn’t do it and still can’t. Still writing, but I don’t seem to ever reach the point where I can stop, publish, and move on to something else. And I’m always writing about the same thing, telling the same story, or rather the same idea, never seem to move on to something else. But isn’t that true of most writers? They have just one book in them and they write it over and over again. It’s certainly true of Louis Lamour, and perhaps also of Charles Dickens,, although I’ll have to reread him first.

Does all this sound like an excuse for not having done something? But think about it. Life is a flowing river and in order to capture it, say in a book, like catching a swimming fish, the flow has to stop and the fish, what, to stop swimming and die. So completed books (and dissertations) are like deaths of thinking?

In respect to Pirandello, and he would be the first to say it, there are at least as many Pirandellos as there are readers of his works. And a lot more than that because in my own case he would change as I changed while living and reading him. So almost from day to day I was many different readers, making him many different writers? Could I have caught him, seized hold of him in my dissertation? Well yes but it wouldn’t have been him, anymore than the wall mounted fish or butterfly be the fish or butterfly.

Do you want to know where all this came from, how I got started thinking once again about Pirandello just this morning while lying in bed, some 45 years after visiting Pirandello’s birthplace in Agrigento, Sicily? Well it was a passage from his play, Henry IV, that I remembered, or rather have never forgotten, about how if you were to be beside another and look into his eyes… the person who entered wouldn’t be you, but someone you didn’t even know.

But I didn’t have to remain with my faulty memory because now there is Google, and after mentioning the passage to Josée over our morning coffee, I went to my Mac laptop and googled Henry IV and found the passage, reread it and found it no less powerful today than it was in 1967 when I first encountered it. Here it is:

HENRY IV: Your being so dismayed because now I seem again mad to you. You have thought me mad up to now, haven’t you? You feel that this dismay of yours can become terror too–something to dash away the ground from under your feet and deprive you of the air you breathe! Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman–with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, the logic of all your constructions? Madmen, lucky folk! construct without logic, or rather with a logic that flies like a feather. Voluble! Voluble! Today like this and tomorrow–who knows? You say: “This cannot be”; but for them everything can be. You say: “This isn’t true!” And why? Because it doesn’t seem true to you, or you, or you…(indicates the three of them in succession)…and to a hundred thousand others! One must see what seems true to these hundred thousand others who are not supposed to be mad! What a magnificent spectacle they afford, when they reason! What flowers of logic they scatter! I know that when I was a child, I thought the moon in the pond was real. How many things I thought real! I believed everything I was told–and I was happy! Because it’s a terrible thing if you don’t hold on to that which seems true to you today–to that which will seem true to you tomorrow, even if it is the opposite of that which seemed true to you yesterday. I would never wish you to think, as I have done, on this horrible thing which really drives one mad: that if you were beside another and looking into his eyes– as I one day looked into somebody’s eyes–you might as well be a beggar before a door never to be opened to you; for he who does enter there will never be you, but someone unknown to you with his own different and impenetrable world…(Long pause. Darkness gathers in the room, increasing the sense of strangeness and consternation in which the four young men are involved. Henry IV remains aloof, pondering on the misery which is not only his, but everybody’s. Then he pulls himself up, and says in an ordinary tone): It’s getting dark here…

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