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From The World’s Wit and Humor, Vol. XIII, Italian — Spanish, The Review of Reviews Company; New York; 1906; pp. 74-98.


Giacomo Leopardi [1798-1837]

On Reciting One’s Own Compositions

JUST as Cervantes wrote a book which purged Spain of spurious chivalry, so I, if I but possessed his genius, would fain write one calculated to purge Italy, and indeed the whole civilized world, of a vice which, having regard to the humanity which in other respects characterizes the age, is perhaps not less cruel and barbarous than any of the relics of medieval ferocity which were lashed by the satire of Cervantes.

I refer to the vicious practise which some writers have of reading or reciting their compositions to their friends. Now this offense is, indeed of hoary antiquity; but in former ages it was comparatively endurable, because it was comparatively rare. At the present day, however, when all men write, and when it is most difficult to meet with a man who is not an author, it has assumed the proportions of a social scourge, a public calamity, and a new terror to life. Indeed, it is no exaggeration, but the simple truth, to say that by reason of this odious practise our acquaintances have become objects of suspicion, and friendship itself a danger; and that there is no time or place at which some innocent person may not be assailed, and subjected on the spot, or be dragged away in order to be subjected, to the torture of listening to interminable prose compositions, or to verses by the thousand. Nor is this cruelty any longer practised under the colorable pretext of desiring an opinion on the merits of these compositions, as used to be the ostensible excuse for 75 such inflictions, but simply and solely for the pleasure it gives to the author to hear the sound of his own productions; and in order that, on the conclusion of his recitation, he may enjoy the extorted applause of his hearers.

In good sooth I think that few things are more calculated than this to exhibit the puerility of human nature, and the extreme of blindness and infatuation to which self-love is capable of conducting a man; while at the same time it is a lurid illustration of the capacity of the human mind to cheat itself with illusions. For every man knows by his own experience what an ineffable nuisance it is to have to listen to the twaddle of other people, and yet, though he sees his friends turn pale with dismay when invited to listen to his; though he hears them plead every imaginable pretext for escape, and perceives that they even try to flee from him and hide themselves, nevertheless, with a brazen front, and with a fell persistence like that of a famished bear, he will hunt and pursue his prey over half the town, and when he catches him he drags him to the destined scene of suffering. Then during the recitation, though he perceives, first by his yawns, then by his uneasy shiftings and contortions, and a hundred other signs, how acute are the sufferings of the unhappy listener, yet he will not desist or have mercy on him, but all the more ruthlessly continues droning on for hours, if not for entire days or evenings, until having talked himself hoarse, and his hearer having swooned, he is at length exhausted though not sated.

Yet during this process, and throughout this torture which he inflicts on his neighbor, it is evident that he experiences a sort of superhuman delight; for we see a man, in the pursuit of this pleasure, sacrifice all other enjoyments, neglect food and repose, and forget everything else in life. And his 76 delight arises from his firm belief that he excites the admiration of his hearer, and gives him pleasure; for it this were not so, it would serve his purpose equally well to declaim to the desert as to recite to his fellow creatures. Now, as to the pleasure conferred on the auditors — I say advisedly auditors, not listeners — I have just said that every one knows by experience what that is, and it is not concealed even from the reciter himself; and sure am I that many would prefer grievous bodily pain to such a pleasure as that. Finally, even the most beautiful and valuable compositions, when recited by their authors, are enough to bore one to death; which reminds me of the opinion of a learned friend of mine, who said that if it be true that the Empress Octavia fainted away while Vergil was reading to her the sixth canto of his Aeneid, the probability is that her swoon was caused not by the poet’s pathetic allusion to the fate of her son Marcellus, as is commonly alleged, but by sheer weariness of the reading.

Such is human nature. For this practise, so barbarous and so ridiculous, and so repugnant to common sense, springs in fact from a disease inherent in the human species, since there is not, and never has been, any nation, however polite, any condition of human society, or any age, exempt from this pest. Italians, French, English, Germans; hoary-headed men; men wise in all other respects; men of worth and genius; the most experienced in social conduct; the most finished in manners, including those most prone to note the follies of others, and to brand them with ridicule — all alike become children, and very cruel children, when they have a chance of reciting their own compositions. And just as this vice flourishes in our time, so it did in that of Horace, who declared it to be insupportable; and in that of Martial, who, being asked by an acquaintance why he did not recite 77 his verses, replied, “That I may escape from hearing yours.” And so it was even in the most brilliant period of ancient Greece; since it is related that once Diogenes the cynic, finding himself present at one of these recitations, in company with some other persons, all in a state of utter exhaustion, and seeing at length the blank page appear at the end of the scroll which the reciter held in his hand, he exclaimed, “Courage, friends, I see land!”

Nowadays, however, matters have come to such a pass that the supply of listeners, even on compulsion, no longer keeps pace with the demands of reciters. In these circumstances certain ingenious friends of mine have given their serious attention to the subject, and, being persuaded that the recitation by authors of their own compositions is one of the most imperious needs of human nature, they have pondered on a scheme calculated not only to satisfy it, but also to direct its gratification, like that of other general public needs, to the promotion of the benefit of individuals. For this purpose they are about to open an Academy of Listening, where, at specified hours, they, or persons employed by them, will listen to any writer desirous of reciting his compositions. For this service there will be a fixed tariff of charges: for listening to prose, one crown for the first hour, two crowns for the second, four for the third, eight crowns for the fourth hour, and so on, increasing by arithmetical progression. For listening to poetry, these charges will be doubled. If at any time the reciter should wish to read any particular passage a second time, as often happens, he will be charged a florin extra for each line so repeated. If, in the course of any reading, any of the listeners should fall asleep, he will forfeit to the reader one-third of the fee falling due to be paid him. To provide for the possible case 78 of convulsions, syncopes, or other such accesses overtaking any listener or reciter, the institution will be furnished with appropriate essences and medicines, which will be dispensed without extra charge.

In this way, the ear, which has hitherto been an unproductive organ, will become a source of direct profit to its owner, and a new path will be opened up to industry, to the increase of the public wealth.


Dialogue Between Fashion and Death

Fashion.  Ho, Madam Death, Madam Death!

Death.  Wait till your hour comes, and I’ll come to you without your calling me.

Fashion.  But, Madam Death ——

Death.  Go to Beelzebub with you! I’ll come, sure enough, when you don’t want me.

Fashion.  Come to me, indeed! As if I were not immortal!

Death.  Immortal, quotha! No, no — as the poet says, “ A thousand years and more have passed since the times of the immortals ceased.”

Fashion.  Madam seems to spout her Petrarch as if she were an Italian lyric poet of the fifteenth or eighteenth century.

Death.  Aye, I love the sonnets of Petrarch, for in them I find ample record of my triumphs, and they abound in mention of me. But again I say, be so good as to be off.

Fashion.  Oh come! By the love you cherish for the seven cardinal sins, stop a moment and look at me!

Death.  I am looking at you.


Fashion.  And do you mean to say you don’t know me?

Death.  You should know that my sight is bad, and that I can’t use spectacles, since the English now make none that suit me; and if they did, I have no nose to stick them on.

Fashion.  Why, I am Fashion, your own sister.

Death.  My sister!

Fashion.  Aye; don’t you remember that we are both the children of Frailty?

Death.  What have I to do with remembering — I, who am the sworn enemy of memory?

Fashion.  But I remember the circumstance well; and I also know that both of us are alike employed continually in the destruction and change of all things here below, although you take one way of doing so, and I another.

Death.  Unless you are talking to yourself, or with some person you have there inside you, I beg you will raise your voice a little and articulate your words better, for if you go on muttering to me between your teeth like that with that voice like a spider’s, I’ll never hear you, since, as you know, my hearing is as bad as my sight.

Fashion.  Well, although it is not good manners to speak plainly, and though in France nobody speaks so as to be heard, yet, since we are sisters, and need not stand on ceremony with each other, I’ll speak as you wish. I say, then, that the tendency and operation common to us both is to be continually renewing the world. But whereas you have from the beginning aimed your efforts directly against the bodily constitutions and the lives of men, I am content to limit my operations to such things as their beards, their hair, their clothing, their furniture, their dwellings, and the like. Nevertheless, it is a fact that I have not failed at times to play men certain tricks not altogether unworthy to be compared 80 to your own work; as, for example, boring men’s ears, or lips, or noses, and lacerating them with trinkets which I place therein; or scorching their bodies with hot irons, which I persuade them to apply to their persons by way of improving their beauty. Then again, I sometimes squeeze the heads of their children with ligatures and other appliances, rendering it obligatory that all the inhabitants of a country should have heads of the same shape, as I have ere now accomplished in America and Asia. I also cripple mankind with shoes too small for their feet, and stifle their respiration, and make their eyes nearly start out of their heads with tightly laced corsets, and many more follies of this kind. In short, I contrive to persuade the more ambitious of mortals daily to endure countless inconveniences, sometimes torture and mutilation, aye, and even death itself, for the love they bear toward me. I say nothing of the headaches, and colds, and catarrhs, and fevers of alls sorts, quotidian, tertian, and quartan, which men contract through their worship of me, inasmuch as they are willing to shiver with cold or stifle with heat at my command, adopting the most preposterous kinds of clothing to please me, and perpetrating a thousand follies in my name, regardless of the consequences to themselves.

Death.  By my faith, I begin to believe that your are my sister after all. Nay, it is as sure as Death, and you have no need to produce the birth certificate of the parish priest in order to prove it. But standing still exhausts me, so if you’ve no objection, I wish you would run on alongside of me; but see you don’t break down, for I run at a great pace. As we run, you can tell me what it is you want of me; and even if you would rather not keep me company, still, in consideration of your relationship to me, I promise you that when I 81 die I’ll leave you all my effects and residuary estate, and much good may it do you.

Fashion.  If we had to run a race together I don’t know which of us would win, for if you run fast, I positively gallop; and as for standing still in one place, if it exhausts you, it is bane to me. So let us be off, and as we run we’ll talk over our affairs.

Death.  All right, then; and since you are my own mother’s child, I hope it will suit you to assist me in my business.

Fashion.  I’ve already told you that I have heretofore done so more than you would suppose. First of all, though it is my nature forever to annul and upset all other customs and usages, I have never and nowhere done anything calculated to put an end to the custom of dying; and thus, as you see, it has prevailed universally from the beginning of time till now.

Death.  A precious marvel, forsooth, that you have abstained from doing that which it was not in your power to do!

Fashion.  Not in my power, quotha! It is very evident that you have no idea of the power of Fashion.

Death.  Well, well, it’ll be time enough to discuss this point when the custom of dying comes to an end. But in the meantime I want you, as a good and affectionate sister, to help me to prevent such a result, and to attain its very opposite, even more effectually and more expeditiously than I have yet done.



Dialogue Between the Earth and the Moon

Earth.  My dear Moon, I know you can talk, and answer questions, since you are a person, as I have often heard from the poets; besides which, our children say you have really got a mouth and nose and eyes, just like any one of themselves, and that they can see this with their own eyes, which at their time of life indeed are pretty sharp. As for me, I doubt not you know that I, too, am no less a person; so much so, indeed, that when I was younger I had plenty of children of my own; and so you won’t be surprised to hear me talk.

Well then, my sweet Moon, though I have been so close to you for so many ages that I can’t remember their number, I have never yet addressed a word to you till now, because my own affairs have hitherto so occupied me that I have never before found time for a chat. But now that my business is so reduced that it can take care of itself, I don’t know what to do with myself, and am fairly bursting with boredom. Therefore propose in future to talk to you often, and to take much interest in your affairs — that is to say, provided I shall not thereby be troublesome to you.

Moon.  Have no anxiety on that score. I would I were as certain that fortune would insure me against all other inconveniences, as I am certain that you will not cause me any. If you want to talk to me, talk away at your pleasure, for, although I am a lover of silence, as I think you know, yet, to oblige you, I am willing to listen to you, and even to answer your questions.

Earth.  Well, then, to begin. Do you hear the delicious 83 harmony which the heavenly bodies produce by their revolutions?

Moon.  To tell you the truth, I hear nothing.

Earth.  Well, for the matter of that, no more do I, unless it be the roar of the wind as it rushes from my poles to the equator, or from the equator to the poles, and there’s not much music in that. But Pythagoras asserts that the celestial spheres create a certain wonderfully sweet sound, and that you yourself contribute to it, and actually form the eighth chord of the universal lyre; but he adds that I am deafened by the sound of it, and therefore do not hear it.

Moon.  Then, of a surety, I, too, must be deafened by it, for, as I said just now, I do not hear it; and I do not feel like being a chord.

Earth.  Well, let us change the subject. Tell me, are you really inhabited, as has been alleged and sworn to by a thousand philosophers, ancient and modern, from Orpheus down to De Lalande? As for me, no matter who I try to stretch these horns of mine which men call mountain peaks, and from which I stare at you, just like a snail with extended horns, yet I can never make out a single inhabitant on you; though I have heard that one David Fabricius, whose eyesight was sharper even that that of Lynceus, once saw some of them spreading their linen out in the sun to dry.

Moon.  As to your horns, as you call them, I know nothing about them; but the fact is, I am inhabited.

Earth.  Aye, and what color are your men?

Moon.  Men! What men?

Earth.  Those who live on you, of course. Do not you say you are inhabited?

Moon.  Well, so I am; but what of that?


Earth.  Well, I presume not all your inhabitants are brutes?

Moon.  Neither brutes nor men. Indeed, for the matter of that, I do not even know what sorts of creatures brutes or men may be; and I may as well tell you that I have not understood a syllable of these things you have just been saying to me, about these men, I presume.

Earth.  Then what sort of creatures are these inhabitants of yours?

Moon.  They are of many and various sorts, all of them unknown to you, as yours are to me.

Earth.  This strikes me as so strange that had I not heard it from your own lips I should never have believed it possible. Were you ever conquered by any of your inhabitants?

Moon.  Not to my knowledge. Conquered? How do you mean, and why?

Earth.  Well, for ambition or cupidity, and by means of political arts or force of arms.

Moon.  I do not know what you mean by arms, or ambition, or political arts. In fact, I do not know what you are talking about.

Earth.  Nay, surely, if you do not know what arms are, you assuredly know what war is, for, not long ago, a certain philosopher down here, by means of certain instruments called telescopes, which enable people to see a great distance, plainly saw up there on you a first-class fortress with tall bastions — a thing which proves that your people are accustomed at least to sieges and mural combats.

Moon.  Pardon me, Madam Earth, if I reply to you a trifle more freely than is perhaps becoming in one who, like me, is only your vassal and handmaiden. But I really must say you appear to me something more than overvain in 85 supposing that all things in all parts of creation must be similar to what prevails in your limits, as if Nature had no other idea except to copy you exactly in all her operations. When I tell you that I am inhabited, straightway you must jump to the conclusion that my inhabitants must be men. Then, when I tell you that they are not so, and when you seem to realize that they may possibly be creatures of some other species, you immediately assume that they must have the same properties and must live under the same conditions as your people, and begin to tell me about telescopes and philosophers and what not. But if these telescopes do not enable you to examine other things more accurately than it seems they do in my case, then I suspect their accuracy is on a par with that of the children down there on you, who, as you have just said, discover in me a mouth and nose and eyes, which I have no knowledge of possessing.

Earth.  I suppose you will tell me next that it is not true that your provinces are provided with fine broad roads, or that you are cultivated, although these things can be plainly seen from Germany with the help of a telescope.

Moon.  If I am cultivated, I am not conscious of the fact; and as to the alleged roads on my surface, they are invisible to me.

Earth.  My dear Moon, I would have you to know that I am rather uneducated and something dull in understanding, and so it is no wonder if men easily impose on me. But, nevertheless, I am in a position to tell you that though, as you say, your own inhabitants have never evinced a desire to conquer you, still you have not always been quite free from dangers of this kind; since at various times various people down here have cherished schemes of conquering you themselves, and have even proceeded far in their preparations to 86 that end. And truly they might have succeeded in their attempts, were it not that although they ascended to the highest points on my surface, and stood on their tiptoes, and stretched out their arms as far as ever they could, they somehow neer managed to reach you. Besides this, for some years past I have observed that my people have been carefully surveying every part of you, and drawing up maps of your various countries. They have also measured the heights of your mountains, and they know the names of them all. Well, for the good-will I bear you, I have thought it only right to tell you of these things, in order that you may be prepared for all possible contingencies.

But now to come to some other matters which I want to ask you. How ever do you stand the incessant baying of our dogs to you? What is your opinion of those people who show you to their friends in a well? Are you feminine or masculine? For in former times opinions were much divided on this point. Is it a fact that the Arcadians existed before you were made? Is it true that the women on you, or whatever your female inhabitants ought to be called, are oviparous, and that an egg of one of them actually fell down here once upon a time, I know not when? Is it the case that you are perforated just like the bead of a rosary, as is maintained by a modern philosopher; or that you are made of green cheese, as certain Englishmen affirm? Are we to believe that one day, or it may have been one night, Mohammed sliced you in two through the middle like a watermelon, and that a good large piece of you slipped up his sleeve? And, finally why do you like to hang on the tops of minarets; and what are your views as to the feast of Bairam?

Moon.  Perhaps you will be good enough to ask me a few 87 more questions, for while you run on like this I have no need to answer you, and can comfortably maintain my wonted silence. If it pleases you to indulge in chatter like this, and can find nothing more sensible to talk about, then, instead of addressing yourself to me, who do not know what you mean, I would recommend you to get your inhabitants to manufacture for you a brand-new satellite which shall revolve round you, and which shall be composed and peopled after your own notions. Apparently you can talk of nothing but men and dogs and other things of which I know no more than I do of that stupendous sun round which it is said our own sun rotates.

Earth.  I confess that the more I resolve, in my conversation with you, to avoid topics specially connected with myself, the less do I succeed in doing so. But I shall be more careful in future. So now, is it you who amuse yourselt by alternately raising and depressing the water in my oceans?

Moon.  Possibly it may be so, but whether I do that, or produce any other effects on you, I am no more conscious of the fact than you probably are of the many effects which you produce on me; and you may imagine that they must exceed those of me on you in proportion as you excel me in size and power.

Earth.  As to any effects that I may produce on you I am not aware of any except that from time to time I intercept from you the light of the sun, and your own from myself; and also that while it is night with you, I shine very brightly on you, as indeed I myself occasionally perceive. But I was nearly forgetting a point which interests me above all others. I should like to know if Ariosto is right where he declares that all the properties which men are continually 88 losing, such as youth, beauty, health, and the like, as well as all the efforts which they expend in the pursuit of earthly renown, in the education of their children, and in the promotion of so-called useful objects — I say, I should like to know if it is true that all these things evaporate in your direction, and are eventually piled up in you as in a lumber-room, so that all human things are to be found there, except, indeed, folly, which never departs from men. If this be so, I reckon that by this time you must be pretty well crammed, and must have very little spare room left; the more so, seeing that of late men have been parting with an unusual number of things, such as patriotism, virtue, magnanimity, and rectitude; and this not only partially or exceptionally, as used to be the case, but universally and totally. At all events, if these things have not flown away to you, I do not know where else they can be. Well, I would propose that we enter into a convention, by the terms of which you shall agree to return these things to me, either at once or by degrees. I judge it likely that you would be glad to be rid of them, especially of common sense, which, I hear, takes up a great deal of space on your globe. On the other hand, I for my part will cause my inhabitants to pay you a good round sum annually for this accommodation.

Moon.  Still harping on those blessed men! For all you have said as to folly never leaving your confines, you are like to drive me mad, and rob me of my own share of common sense in your search for that of men, as to which I have no sort of idea where it is, or whether it still exists in any corner of the universe. The only thing I do know about it is that it is not to be found up here — no, nor any of the other things you ask me for.

Earth.  Well, then, at least tell me if your inhabitants are 89 acquainted with vices, misdeeds, misfortunes, pain, old age, and, in a word, all ills. I presume you know the meaning of these names.

Moon.  Oh, I know them well; and not only the names, but the things which they mean. Too well do I know them, for I am filled quite full with them, instead of with the other things you mentioned just now.

Earth.  Which most abound among your inhabitants — virtues or vices?

Moon.  Vices, by a very long way indeed.

Earth.  And, with you, which generally predominates — good or evil?

Moon.  Evil, beyond all comparison.

Earth.  And, generally speaking, are your inhabitants happy or unhappy?

Moon.  So unhappy that I would not change places with the most fortunate of them.

Earth.  It is just the same down here; so much so that it is a marvel to me that you, who differ so totally from me in other respects, should resemble me exactly in this.

Moon.  Nay, I resemble you also in form, in rotatory movement, and in being illumined by the sun; and the resemblance you marvel at is no more wonderful than our resemblance in these other particulars, seeing that evil is a condition as common to all planets of the universe — or, at all events, of our solar system — as is rotundity and the other points just noted by me. Indeed, I will venture to say that if you could raise your voice so as to be heard by Uranus or Saturn, or any other planet of our system, and were to ask it whether unhappiness existed there, or whether good or evil most prevailed within its limits, any one of them would give you the same answer that I have done. This I am prepared 90 to assert, because I put these very questions to Venus and to Mercury, which two planets from time to time approach more closely to me than I do to you; and I have also asked the same thing from one or two comets which happened to pass near me, and all alike replied in the same terms. Nay, I am quite confident that the sun himself, and all the fixed stars would say the same.

Earth.  Well, for all you say, I hope for the best, and especially at this time, since men assure me of great happiness in the near future.

Moon.  Hope away as much as you please. I promise you that you will have to be content with hoping forever.

Earth.  Hush! Observe — do you see what’s happening? The men and animals are beginning to stir. You know that down here it is night, and they were all sleeping; but, alarmed by our talking in this way, they are all awaking in mortal terror.

Moon.  But with me, as you see, it is day.

Earth.  Well, well, I do not wish to frighten my creatures and disturb their sleep, which, poor things, is the greatest consolation they possess. So we’ll leave off now, and resume our conversation another time. So good day to you.

Moon.  Good night.


The Academy of Syllographs

THE Academy of Syllographs, ever mindful of the primary aim of its constitution, and having always at heart the promotion of the public good, has come to the conclusion that it could not more effectually conduce to this end than by 91 aiding in the development of the distinguished tendencies of what an illustrious poet has characterized as the happy age in which we live.

For this reason it has diligently diagnosed the genius of the present time, and after prolonged and searching investigation it has arrived at the conviction that the present age ought to be characterized as preeminently the age of machines. And this not only because the men of to-day live and move more mechanically than did those of any former period, but also by reason of the infinite number of mechanical contrivances continually being invented, and daily being applied to so many various purposes, that nowadays it may almost be said that human affairs and all the operations of life are governed and regulated not by men at all, but by machines.

This feature of the age is hailed by the Academy with peculiar satisfaction, not only in view of the manifest general convenience which flows from it, but also for two special reasons of a most important character, though not generally recognized by society. In the first place, the Academy feels confident that in course of time the agency of mechanism may be so extended as to embrace not only the material but the moral world; and that, just as mechanical inventions now protect us from lightning and other atmospherical disturbances, so, in time, some sort of apparatus may be invented calculated to shield us from envy, calumny, perfidy, and fraud; some species of moral lightning-conductors, so to speak, which may protect us from the effects of egotism, from the dominion of mediocrity, from the arrogance of bloated imbecility, from the ribaldry of the base, from the cynical pessimism of pedants, from the indifferentism engendered by overculture, and from numerous other such like inconveniences, 92 which of late have become as difficult to ward off as formerly were the lightnings and storms of the physical world.

The next consideration just referred to is this, and it is one of paramount importance. It is well known that philosophers have come to despair of remedying the manifold defects of humanity, and are convinced that it would be more difficult to amend these than it would be to recast things on an entirely fresh basis, and to substitute an entirely fresh agency as the motive power of life. The Academy of Syllographs, concurring in this opinion, hold that it would be in the highest degree expedient that men should retire as far as possible from the conduct of business of the world, and should gradually give place to mechanical agency for the direction of human affairs. Accordingly, resolved to contribute as far as it lies in its power to this consummation, it has determined to offer three prizes, to be awarded to the persons who shall invent the best examples of the three machines now to be described.

The scope and object of the first of these automata shall be to represent the person and discharge the functions of a friend who shall not calumniate or jeer at his absent associate; who shall not fail to take his part when he hears him censured or ridiculed; who shall not prefer a reputation for wit, and the applause of men, to his duty to friendship; who shall never, from love of gossip or mere ostentation of superior knowledge, divulge a secret committed to his keeping; who shall not abuse the intimacy or confidence of his fellow in order to supplant or surpass him; who shall harbor no envy against his friend; who shall guard his interests and help to repair his losses, and shall be prompt to answer his 93 call, and minister to his needs more substantially than by empty professions.

In the construction of this piece of mechanism it will be well to study, among other things, the treatise on friendship by Cicero, as well as that of Madame de Lambert. The Academy is of opinion that the manufacture of such a machine ought not to prove impracticable or even particularly difficult, for, besides, the automata of Regiomontanus and Vaucanson, there was at one time exhibited in London a mechanical figure which drew portraits, and wrote to dictation; while there have been more than one example of such machines capable of playing at chess. Now, in the opinion of many philosophers human life is but a game; nay, some hold that it is more shallow and more frivolous than many other games, and that the principles of chess, for example, are more in accordance with reason, and that its various moves are more governed by wisdom, than are the actions of mankind; while we have it on the authority of Pindar that human action is no more substantial then the shadow of a dream; and this being so, the intelligence of an automaton ought to prove quite equal to the discharge of the functions which have just been described.

As to the power of speech, it seems unreasonable to doubt that men should have the power of communicating it to machines constructed by themselves, seeing that this may be said to have been established by sundry precedents, such, for example, as in the case of the statue of Memnon, and of the human head manufactured by Albertus Magnus, which actually became so loquacious that Saint Thomas Aquinas, losing all patience with it, smashed it to pieces. Then, too, there was the instance of the parrot Ver-Vert, though it was a 94 living creature; but if it could be taught to converse reasonably, how much more may it be supposed that a machine devised by the mind of man, and constructed by his hands, should do as much; while it would have this advantage that it might be made less garrulous than this parrot, or the head of Albertus, and therefore it need not irritate its acquaintance and provoke them to smash it.

The inventor of the best example of such a machine shall be decorated with a gold medallion of four hundred sequins in weight, bearing on its face the images of Pylades and Orestes, and on the reverse the name of the successful competitor, surrounded by the legend, FIRST REALIZER OF THE FABLES OF ANTIQUITY.

The second machine called for by the Academy is to be an artificial steam man, so constructed and regulated as to perform virtuous and magnanimous actions. The Academy is of opinion that in the absence of all other adequate motive power to that end, the properties of steam might prove effective to inspire an automation, and direct it to the attainment of virtue and true glory. The inventor who shall undertake the construction of such a machine should study the poets and the writers of romance, who will best guide him as to the qualities and functions most essential to such a piece of mechanism. The prize shall be a gold medal weighing four hundred and fifty sequins, bearing on its obverse a figure symbolical of the golden age, and on its reverse the name of the inventor.

The third automaton should be so constituted as to perform the duties of woman such as she was conceived by the Count Baldassar Castiglione, and described by him in his treatise entitled The Courtier, as well as by other writers in other works on the subject, which will be readily 95 found, and which, as well as that of the count, will have to be carefully consulted and followed. The construction of a machine of this nature, too, ought not to appear impossible to the inventors of our time, when they reflect on the fact that in the most ancient times, and times destitute of science, Pygmalion was able to fabricate for himself, with his own hands, a wife of such rare gifts that she has never since been equaled down to the present day. The successful inventor of this machine shall be rewarded with a gold medal weighing five hundred sequins, bearing on one face the figure of the Arabian Phenix of Metastasio, couched on a tree of European species, while its other side will bear the name of the inventor, with the title, INVENTOR OF FAITHFUL WOMEN AND OF CONJUGAL HAPPINESS.

Finally, the academy has resolved that the funds necessary to defray the expenses incidental to this competition shall be supplemented by all that was found in the purse of Diogenes, its first secretary, together with one of the three golden asses which were the property of its former members — namely, Apuleius, Firenzuola, and Machiavelli, but which came into the possession of the Academy by the last wills and testaments of the aforementioned, as duly recorded in its minutes.


The Origin of Laughter

THE song of birds affords keen delight not to man alone, but to all other animals. I believe this arises not from the mere sweetness and variety of its harmony, great as these properties unquestionably are, but mainly from that suggestion 96 of gladness naturally inherent in all song, and more especially in that of birds. It is, in a word, the laughter of these creatures which convulses them when they are happy.

From this circumstance it may almost be said that birds share with man the power and privilege of laughing, which none of the other animals possess. Hence, some have held that as man has been defined as an intellectual and reasoning animal, he might equally well have been distinguished as a laughing one, seeing that the power to laugh is as peculiar to man as is the gift of reason. But is it not a strange thing that while man is the most afflicted of all animals, he is the only one which possesses the power to laugh, a gift withheld from all other creatures on earth? Strange, too, is the use we sometimes make of this faculty, since even in the most acute calamities, in the profoundest distress, when life itself is odious, when the vanity of all earthly things is most apparent, when joy is impossible and hope is dead, men are seen to laugh! Nay, the more they realize the vanity of all earthly joys and the reality of human misery, and the more hopeless and indisposed to merriment they are, the more do we find some men prone to laughter! Indeed, the very nature of laughter, and its governing principles and motives, are so inexplicable that sometimes it may best be described as a sort of transient madness, a temporary delirium of the soul. For, in truth, men, being never truly satisfied or really delighted by anything, can never have a just and reasonable cause for laughter. In fact, it would be curious to inquire how and under what circumstances man first became conscious of his possession of this faculty, and first actually employed it. For it is certain that in his primitive and savage state he is generally grave in his demeanor, and indeed apparently melancholy in his mood, as are the lower animals. 97 For this reason, not only am I convinced that laughter made its appearance in the world subsequently to tears — a point, indeed, on which there can be little doubt — but also that a long period must have elapsed before it may be said to have been even discovered. During this period it may be assumed, as, indeed, is expressly stated by Vergil, that not even the mother smiled upon her babe, nor did the babe recognize its mother with a smile. And if at the present time, at least in civilized societies, man begins to laugh soon after his birth, I am of opinion that this is mainly the effect of example and imitation, and that children laugh because they see others do so.

For my part, I am disposed to think that laughter had its origin in intoxication, itself a condition peculiar to the human race. And we know that intoxication prevailed among men long before they had attained to civilization; as is proved by the fact that the rudest peoples are acquainted with intoxicants of one kind or another, and use them with avidity. Nor is this to be wondered at, for men are, of all animals, the most exposed to unhappiness, and therefore they alone are impelled to seek consolation in this soothing mental alienation, which, inducing forgetfulness of self, amounts to a temporary intermission of life itself, during which the sense of suffering is diminished, or actually suspended for a time. And, as touching laughter in this connection, it is a familiar fact that savages, who in their sober moments are usually serious and sad, when intoxicated laugh immoderately, and even chatter and sing, contrary to their usual custom. However, I propose to treat this question more fully in a history of laughter, which I contemplate composing, and in which, after investigating its origin, I shall follow up its development and vicissitudes down to the present time, when, as we see, 98 it flourishes exuberantly, and occupies in the economy of civilized life a position almost equal to that formerly filled by virtue, justice, honor, and the like, wielding an influence scarcely inferior to that exercised by those principles.

“The Praise of Birds,” in the “Essays.”


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