CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|The Atheist in the Attic
Part 1 of 3
Samuel R. Delany
“Philosophy is homesickness. It is the desire to feel at home everywhere.”
There was nothing grand about his home, which almost all things here—the candelabras on the lace cloth at the ends of the downstairs dining table, the brass bar holding the carpet to the back of each broad step, the yellow blossoms brocaded on the wand of the bed warmer leaning by the fireplace in my bedroom suite—make me remember. (Though severity is in keeping with the nation, domestic Dutch decor is too austere.) In the few hours I’ve been back I’ve seen three servants: one man coming from a door at a second-floor corridor’s end and (I glimpsed them over the banister) two women walking together across the front hall. They were carrying starched lace toward the dining room, as I was going up.
No Peytor yet, but apparently he was among the lowest in the house.
Gunter does not live opulently. He keeps a household staff here of only sixteen, for him and his three younger sisters—one of whose conversation and anecdotes about her travels I find more interesting than Gunter’s; one of whom I find a lively talker about fashion and gossip, if the topic itself is a bit tedious for me; and none of whom is currently at home. From my last visit two years ago, I suspect all three girls find their younger brother a bore.
But aren’t journals such as this basically occasions for candid assessments?
No. They’re not. They’re for telling oneself the fictions that are as honest as you can make them and still keep your life bearable.
Sixteen in this house is not quite one servant for every two rooms.
There, of course, I’d seen only one—and would have been surprised were it more than two. The woman who’d answered the door turned out to be the landlord as well as the red-brick building’s owner. An owner answering her own door? That’s very Dutch. Or seems so to a German like me.
But I write this back at Gunter’s.
Yesterday morning just before daybreak I took a cart up from the boat (I am so glad the duke owns his own yacht), with my three trunks containing eight pairs of pants, a dozen lace-fronted shirts—party and plain—jackets for everyday wear, enough wig powder to choke a full reception of young officers, my travel cloak, my greatcoat, my smallclothes—since baths are at a minimum I travel with lots of them, which makes me eccentric—my mechanical calculating machine (my own design, with just the fewest suggestions from the Hamburg horologist who constructed it last summer according to my seventeen pages of careful plans) stored with my books (some of mine for casual gifts, two of his I hope no one but he will know—while I’m here—I have) and papers in my luggage—and my calculus still in my head. That’s where I want to keep it right now, ready for the upcoming attempt at friendship in England.
Moonlight and window light had flecked the broken canal. The three of us in the Duke’s party staying in the city crossed on an early ferry. Horses huffed out breath and hoofed at cobbles, and the deepest blue emerged above the water and was reflected in it; nor was the air that cold.
And today I am back again—from my first visit.
Settling into my suite, where I’d slept a few hours and risen before three in the morning, I’m trying to make sense of the fragments of these last hours, these last days, this life, and the possible world that might sensibly hold both a here and a there.
Today was my first visit anywhere since I’d arrived, you see. Or, for accuracy, I could say it was my second. “One” is the easy fiction. “Two” is the slightly more embarrassing one that society, good manners, and expediency compel:
I did it.
It wasn’t that important.
Let’s leave it out.
I would have felt very bad if I hadn’t at least thanked that young man back in Hamburg who’d cast his wheels and cogs, and bolted his cylinders to their metal rack, and his grown daughter of almost thirteen who’d polished them all, and his father who’d actually come in one day and made the two suggestions that allowed the whole thing—as I said above, or did I say it?—to work. Did I thank them? The uncertainty throws guilt over all my present actions. But experience says forget it—or write him a note apologizing for the oversight if it’s still that disturbing. Writings that have come down to us from the classical Greeks suggest those bright people had a mail service of sorts. But most of the last thirty years in Germany, save in the larger cities, there has not been.
And I can imagine a third fiction that says: Oh, of course, modes of politeness are not important: They’re not important the way garbage carts are not important. The way sewer pipes in cities are not important. (And Venice and Amsterdam have developed such different sewer systems from Paris—which practically doesn’t have any—or from London, which does.) They’re not important the way money that moves around the city and keeps buildings and byways, churches and bridges from falling to pieces through extravagance or bad judgment isn’t important, or the peoples who have been forced by laws—and our laws, after all—largely to confine themselves to the management of financial loans in the greater mode of investments are not important. (They’re not important unless you don’t know them.) It’s not important the way anything is “not important” that we leave out of fictions too quickly and glibly told. In short, what could be more pressing to articulate, to analyze, to carefully oversee than politeness—the thing we assume is so well understood, so widely shared, that it allows a simple “good morning,” “good day,” or “good evening” to make sense? Suppose our days were six months long, and our nights as well—as some claim is the case at the poles of our own great globe, which has grown so much larger in the last hundred years that whole counties can lose their postal systems for a century or so? What would happen to the most ordinary greetings on the street? What happens if there are no streets as such on which to greet each other …? Is that a good enough reason to think that China and India, Africa and the Americas, whether at pole or equator, are simply uncivilized because they are different? Or that anyone from them, unto their greatest and most powerful rulers, is not worthy to clean up our shit? Really, such ponderings are absurd. At least I think they are. Sometimes.
And other times, they don’t seem so.
Or take this in an entirely different direction: Does bringing such questions and assumptions to light mean you are a politically revolutionary genius, so that all you have to do is shout—in the proper place (that is, in the most improper place you can think of)—“birth!” “joy!” “sewer pipes!” “money!” “slaves, women, the poor!” “onanism!” “copulation!” “smallclothes!” “shit!” “pain!” or “death!”? Or that such improprieties might lead to a revolution for the benefit of the nation, the world (or poor women slaves)? In truth, I don’t know. I must be mad. (Why did a great queen privilege an old, rude genius, who, twenty-six years ago, must have been at least ninety at her court …? Everyone who’s anyone today knows that’s where he died. No one remembers that I passed through with my uncle when I was six—and I remember meeting him. And where shall I end my life, should my age suddenly and surprisingly treble? Some place where I shall be not more remembered there than I was then?) But a thank-you note might be a start.
I’d arrived in Amsterdam planning to make eight visits, for all of which I already had letters of introduction from my duke and for most of which I had already written out personal notes to precede me. Only the first was I passionate about making, however. The others (which as of this evening still lie ahead) are to my patron—or to people my duke wishes to patronize.
As soon as my carriage had drawn up at Gunter’s elegant grounds and town house, which I’d assumed would be my Amsterdam home for the next twelve days (two weeks, shy one weekend for travel on to the next place that lies ahead, as does another visit tomorrow to The Hague), and today assume will be for the next eleven, I’d climbed down to the paving between the hedges (the driver had been paid back at the docks). Someone declared: “Oh, you’re here! Wonderful. You can go on up if you want—if you’re tired, of course.” It was Gunter, outside my closed carriage, in his own open one. (I leaned forward to glimpse him through the window in my carriage door, in morning wig and afternoon coat.) “But I don’t remember you ever being tired before two at Altdorf! I’ve given you three rooms on the third floor. Mary and Peytor will show you where you’ll be—when we get back, you and I. It’s the suite my uncle used to work in whenever he’d stay with us. He’s been dead four years; we’ve hardly used them since. You remember Peytor, don’t you? Well, he remembers you! He didn’t stop talking for three weeks the last time you left us. About you, too. And as soon as he heard you were coming again, he asked could he please be assigned you while you were here.” (Wondering what he was getting at, I opened the door, which was slightly loose and, starting to climb down, smiled and shrugged.) “You know me. I let them run me,” Gunter went on, “really I do. I haven’t got the personality to do this sort of thing properly. And don’t even talk about the girls.” (Perhaps an invitation of some sort that he was leading up to?) “My inability to manage a house is half the reason why I never married. You could spend a bit more time with your host, couldn’t you?” He burbled on, while I tried to fathom what was behind all this chatter. “Look, let them get your things up there if you don’t mind them unpacking for you—they do it for me, whenever I travel: I take them around with me; certainly they can do it for you while you’re here—you can look it over later.” He sighed. “Peytor’s not used to it.” And Peytor …? The truth is, right then, I had no idea whom Gunter meant. (Nor, since he meant a servant, was I particularly curious, right then, to know.) My last visit had been two years back, and Gunter had certainly never mentioned him in a letter. “But Mary will keep him in line. I don’t know if you were aware of this—we rather rescued him from the country back in the summer of ’72.” He stopped, as if he’d remembered something. “My dear Gottfried, whom I haven’t seen in ever so long, I have to”—he took a breath, and I realized he’d started in on a confession—“drive over to see an … an old Jew. There’s nothing for it; there’s no getting out of it. Oh, you know how that is. Come with me, and we can at least start catching up …?”
So it was an invitation, and one he was embarrassed about, of course. (My dear Gottfried, I have to take some money to a … a young woman. Oh, you know how it is. I could hear him say it in the same tone of voice.) “I have a feeling I’m not going to see much more of you than when we were at school—and I don’t want to think how long ago that is. You’ve written me how busy you’ll be this trip.” Leaning on his carriage edge, he smiled imploringly. “Come. At least I’ll get a few moments with you.” He really was perfectly happy to let his housekeeper assign half of his full complement of servants to devote themselves to my arrival so he could have another few minutes’ talk with me before our day grew hectic. We are so selfish and squander so much at this social level where the fame and infamy that count are both invented.
“Certainly.” It seemed rude not to. (Just as it would have were we visiting his paid mistress.) But I stood there a moment, between vehicles, feeling it would be unseemly as well to leap too quickly to fulfill my friend’s awkward request. “You’ve always been a very generous friend to me,” I said, wondering why he couldn’t extend that generosity a bit more and leave me alone to arrive.
“And I always felt the time we did spend together,” he offered as recompense, “was some of the most pleasant I’ve ever had with anyone.”
Then he opened out his carriage door, and I climbed up. He stepped back for me, and I took a seat across from him. But such endless and minuscule anxieties as mine were the price, I reflected, of working so hard at—and sometimes even succeeding in—being a good houseguest.
While on the street, from the house, from the garden behind it, from the small maintenance building to one side of it, his people were calling to each other to busy themselves getting my things inside, we set off to pay his Dutch Jew a call, as if the world had offered an unexpected stutter to my own plans: my secret Jew tomorrow, presaged by Gunter’s ordinary Jew today.
And, yes, I wanted it to be a secret—candidly.
I wasn’t planning to make much of my visit the next morning, either to Gunter or to anyone else. No, I wasn’t hiding it—exactly.
But when you are a busy guest of a busy host at a sprawling and busy home, sometimes you can disappear for a day or even two or three and not attract much attention, either before it happens or once it is over. (Right now I hope only this journal will know. And probably even it will have to be studied and reread generously to reveal its secrets and separate chaff and grain, gold and grit—assuming there’s gold or grain to it at all. Also, at thirty, one is of an age to know how silly most such hopes are.) I have been wondering since the beginning if I ought to record it, or even if—now that it’s occurred—I might be too excited to write about it.
True: So far I am not. (I feel just excited enough …)
But I remember, as I sat in Gunter’s open carriage, more or less comfortably muffled (was it colder today?), listening to his chatter, and chattering back what seemed—when it seemed—appropriate, while we went off to see his Jew, if I should really be calling mine a Jew at all.
His own people no longer did. Did he? Today he signs his name Benedict instead of Baruch. I wonder if he’s learned how little difference that makes in how anyone else talks of him—including me. Or if he cares.
And, of course, the always awkward third truth: this invitation to see another Jew this morning made me feel as if the world were mocking me, as if it were pushing me to say, even now: “You know I’m going to be seeing that Spinoza fellow tomorrow, if he’ll receive me.” And I was not going to say that to Gunter! I was not going to say it because I was protecting my own reputation. I was protecting Spinoza’s as well.
And I was protecting Gunter’s and his family’s, I told myself, not to mention those strangers who’d already involved themselves in his case, those scattered in the Netherlands and Germany and France as well.
But wouldn’t the world be a better place if I didn’t have to?
(When your own reputation already entails a philosophy such as mine, serious thoughts about preferable alternatives can only make you weary.)
“Of course,” I said, “let’s go,” just to plague myself with the discomfort of knowing I had decided—not to lie, exactly, but to withhold the truth, at least from Gunter. Or, at any rate, to delay his knowledge of it.
Till I have seen my Jew? Or till after I’ve left with my trunks and bags and notions of the world for another two-, five-, or ten-year hiatus in my friendship with Gunter. Would I tell him tonight or tomorrow? (No! That was insane! Would I tell him in a year, a decade, ever? How could I know?)
We drove in his carriage to the Jews’ neighborhood, with more chat about his sisters, his servants—“Sophie will be particularly unhappy to have missed you”—his youngest sister—“as would Peytor if you’d come three months later—I’m giving him half a year off to go back to his family in Flanders and help them out.” (What in the world is it about this Peytor?) “If he’d missed you, he’d never have forgiven himself or me, for settling his leave in winter instead of the spring—”
I asked, “Farming? His family?”
Gunter said, “Of course, that’s what they do.” He looked at me with the hint of questioning that asked, What else could it be?
And I wondered when (or if) I was going to see this young houseman. (Or was he an old one …?) I had no memory of what this Peytor looked like. I assumed he was here on my last visit. But one meets so many servants in the course of the quasidiplomatic circuits I am always moving through, I find myself not even trying to keep them in memory.
When we got there, Gunter gathered himself up. “Do you mind waiting out here? It’s one of those matters …” Now he smiled, shrugged, even opened up his hands, as if—I fancied—to show me he held no weapon. “I’m sure you understand.”
“Not at all.” I smiled back.
Gunter raised his eyebrows. “Unless you’d like to come in just to get—?”
“Really.” I shrugged scarf and coat. If anything, I was too warm. “No, really. I’m quite comfortable—at least now.”
Once or twice the horses stepped about so that the driver had to still them. And I was rocked along through my thoughts in the carriage—which were, I’m afraid, little like the ones I’ve been writing here.
Above the door how many years ago had someone carved the Hebrew homily emet veshalom yasod ha ollam. Quietly I read it. It’s supposed to be Jews speaking to other Jews. We gentiles (it assumes) merely overhear it and therefore trust them more. But couldn’t it be Jews speaking to us as well, accusing us of making the world the mess that it is?
I wondered at the discomfort of sitting below its accusation: No, you really are lying to this generous man, your friend, a member of your nation and class, endangering him and his family, moreover endangering yourself by planning this secret visit, and still moreover endangering the man—the Jew—you claim so greatly to respect that you hardly dare to write such a vilified name even in a journal. (No, I will write it!) Spinoza may be the most peaceful man—or Jew—in the world, but the world that he lives in and that I live in is not. And not to talk about it is a blatant lie of omission.
Could that shalom (peace) if not the emet (truth) have been Jews scolding specifically the man I’d hoped to see the next day, the most peaceful of men by all reports by those who love him, and evil beyond all bearing by those who vilify him. Does the homily ask him: “Why have you fueled all this rage and uproar around our city, our country, our Lord’s world, whether your people’s Lord or mine …?”
But apparently he’d been doing that through his whole life: wasn’t that why his own people had already excommunicated him?
By the time Gunter came out again and walked from under the words I had been reading and rereading—the stone words over the door—feeling around under his cloak for his inner wallet, I had decided—truly, short of abandoning my plans to see him at all—that my actions and my reticence both were for the best. But I wondered why—still—we had to live in a world where that was the best we might have.
Better, the intaglio words were an absence of stone.
“Well”—Gunter stepped up to the carriage and pulled back the half door—“that wasn’t as complicated as I was afraid it might be. I think he knows, in money matters, it’s well to oblige the wealthy. And you’re a good friend for your support. Really.”
He climbed in. The driver shook his whip near the animal’s ear. We started home.
Really, had this been necessary? But that, I thought, was my old friend.
When we got back to Gunter’s, my traveling trunks were no longer about the steps.
Gunter pushed inside, not ringing for anyone. A cool smell of dust in the cavernous front hall. Neither Peytor nor Mary was there to take me up to my room. “Come with me.” No one at the front to take Gunter’s coat or mine, either. He looked around, clearly put out, then shrugged grumpily and hung his over the banister. “Sixteen men and women,” he said. (That, by the way, is how I first knew for sure what I’ve written above. Or maybe it’s not important and I should cross this out—since clearly that’s implied.) “And do you see a soul? I must have said it a dozen times in the last two months. Someone’s supposed to be in charge of the door at all times. Leave yours there, too.”
“It’s all right, I’ll take mine up with …”
But he already seemed to have forgotten. As we started up, a woman in a bonnet and Dutch apron came hurrying in from a door along the hallway with its flowered paper. “Oh, sir—I’m so sorry, I was just out at—”
Gunter loped up two steps, looked back, and declared: “We’ve gone through this before, Hilda. That”—he pointed to his coat on the rail—“best not be there when I come down. Come on, Gottfried. I’m afraid you’re seeing us with our clothing all untied and unhooked. Are you sure you don’t want to leave it?” Then, I realized, he thought better: I was a guest, and an eccentric one. “Let’s go. Follow me and I’ll show you where you are.” Halfway up, of course, all of a sudden he remembered something he had to do. “Before eight thirty. Someone’s coming, and I have to get to this—so we’ll be ready. Really, we’ve been putting it off since …” He sucked his teeth. “Anyway, that’s why I had to see the Jew. Look, you just go on up there. Turn … left; that’s right, left; you’re the end of the hall. I’m sure the suite’s open. Mary would leave it unlocked, I know. Peytor—it’s a toss-up with pretty much everything he does, till he does it a dozen times and gets his ear pinched a handful of times for doing it wrong. So it’s a matter of who left last. Once you’re up there, you can ring for someone to take your coat down if you’d like.” And he hurried off over blue carpeting toward what I assumed was his own suite (though his working spaces were scattered though the manse, unless he was one of those gentlemen who tries to work alone in concentrated isolation. It’s surprising how little I knew my host, especially in these last years.)
I continued on, feeling as if every new piece of information just accused me further. Finally I pushed through my door.
It was a very nice room—the first of three. Mary and Peytor—or possibly just Mary with Peytor getting instructions from someone (Mary herself?) who could do it far faster than he (I assumed he didn’t pay the most steadfast attention)—had finished unpacking my things in the bedroom, behind the two sitting rooms. The shutters were opened. The drapes were back. The trunks themselves I went to see in the walk-in closet. I opened the one on the top: my writing equipment, my papers—and, in the trunk’s corner, my mechanical calculator, bronze and bright, with all its parts turned by a crank that lay in the wooden box beside it. Wisely they’d known not to touch those.
I closed the trunk.
As I looked around, I thought: Someone has put some thinking into how this had best be done, so that I, the presumed beneficiary of that thinking, need not think at all. But here I am, thinking anyway about the individual thoughts such thinking comprised, approving this bit, questioning that one, disapproving of another—well, thinking about what’s not supposed to require thinking, that is philosophy, no? (Wasn’t this all predicated on how to get out of the house leaving as few signs as I could? “No, sir. His coat’s gone from the downstairs closet.”) And all creatures who can think must indulge it one way or the other, some more, some less, some better, some worse, all the way up to the Great and Terrible Gods of Men, wrangling and warring among our princes over the explanations offered for His behavior, and even unto your behavior in response to Him. My mind on the peaks of Zion and Olympus, Ararat and the Mount of Olives, I went to the dresser, opened the top drawer, and pulled it out—
Smallclothes. Mine. All of them.
I’d expected handkerchiefs, hose, and shirts in the top of the bureau.
This had to be Peytor. A sensible and experienced servant—like Mary—would either wait till asked, or, if he didn’t know what they were, put them in a bottom drawer. At various grand homes where I’d been a guest, that’s what had happened over the years.
No, this had to be a boy—and a boy who’d waited on me once and whom I couldn’t remember. Mary, with whom I was equally unacquainted, would have thought differently—if I trusted Gunter’s passing account.
At the desk in the middle room, I slid a visitor’s card from my wallet and signed it.
I took out a sheet of paper, waiting for me in the stocked desk, dipped my quill in an ink bottle in its elaborate stand—it had been refilled, I assumed, within the hour—let it drip twice back into the inkwell, so that ink rippled like the sea (or one of the canals outside), then moved it from the left side of the paper, to the right side, to the left again, and again to the right, while I debated whether to write my note in Latin or Hebrew. I read Hebrew as well as any educated German once destined for the clergy (before the law had grabbed up all my energies), and I speak it tolerably. But my writing, that is, my Hebraic penmanship (unlike my Greek and Latin) is, frankly, dreadful.
I moved my quill to the left, to begin.
All right, Latin.
My esteemed colleague, Herr Spinoza …
And I explained how I had gotten his address from our mutual friend, Herr Oldendorf. I knew his health was not the best. I would be at his home in the vicinity of eight the following day. If he were not up to seeing me, he should merely decline to meet. I would respect that completely. But I was prepared to go the trouble of coming and risking his dismissal, as a sign of the great respect in which I held his learning and wisdom.
I signed it—
Your humble servant and fellow in truth, Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz
—and added several titles, though I was sure he must know my work at least as well as I knew his. After all, he had written a book on Descartes. Presumably this would convey I was his equal or superior in society, though ready to learn from him if he would make the effort to teach me.
When I finished and waxed it and stamped it with my seal, I rang for someone to get it into the hands of a messenger. Ten minutes later when no one had come, I stood up, took my letter, went into the hall, and started down the stairs. Somewhere there must be servants in the house. Maybe now was the time to call on the good will of the curious Peytor. But I knew nothing of him. Was he fourteen? Was he twenty-four? And none too swift—which now I’m thirty I know means something different when it is applied to the city poor or the city rich, the country rich or the country poor. Or even men and women whenever they occupy one or the other varied station. There was a ribbon on the table with which to tie the letter.
In the polishing room behind the pantry, three women worked at the old plank table with their kidskin and rouges and the silver candlesticks that may well have been the work of the same artisan who’d made the dining-room candelabras.
One paused, rubbed the bridge of her nose with her knuckle, and, when I asked for him, told me that Peytor was on loan to the stable of the house two east of here. Yes, she was Mary. But she could tell me where to find a messenger. Let her put down her work a minute—her soup spoons and rubbing cloth—get her winter shawl and wrap up against the afternoon damp and gray. Two other women were sitting on the far side of the room with pillows on their laps and half a dozen wooden bobbins hanging down them, weaving at their lace as if their lives depended on it, not even looking up when Mary came back.
Outside were a group of poor fellows. Mary walked me up to them, and they explained they would take a message anywhere locally; one said he’d even take letters to outlying townlets—Haarlem, Utrech, The Hague—because he had relatives who lived there and he could stay over if he had to, and while mail was dear, people were realizing more and more and more that it was worth it. Mary had three letters herself she wanted to start on their way. Though she would take no offence if mine were too important to send at the same time as a simple country woman’s, getting gossip to her aunts and cousins—
“Oh, don’t be silly, old woman,” I said in Dutch.
I assume she shared my thirty years—though probably the powder I wore made me look older, like a city corpse ready for interment. The talc is supposed to keep you cool and ward off skin cancers if you spend anytime outdoors in the country sun.
Our boys were sullen and with large hats down over their ears and whiskers; two were tied on with scarfs. No, getting out to The Hague was a full day’s ride. Yes, he (the one with relatives there) would have it there by evening. Then a city church announced noon. We agreed on a price that both Mary and I thought acceptable, though she looked dour. But I suspect that was her response to prices in general. Possibly she thought the whole idea of sending a letter by a paid messenger rather than waiting for a relative or a servant on their way in a wagon an unneeded extravagance.
And I hoped my official seven—two others in The Hague, one in Utrecht, the rest in Amsterdam itself—would not take such a tedious amount of time once I got this one out of the way.
I needed to get an early morning carriage for the next day and a driver. Which I managed to secure—again with Mary, since a diligence was at the corner. (I was not about to use Gunter’s.) So when the mantel clock said three in the light of the lantern beside it, I was up, washed by a second lantern I’d lit from the other, and into new hose, doublet, and undercoat, from smallclothes to great coat.
I wore only a small wig.
Before the fine sand ran out in the candlelight, I grabbed up the baggy wallet with the books I’d wanted to take, looked in it (wrong wallet of course, so I went back and got the right one), snuffed the light and went down—and outside found my driver asleep under horse blankets up on the carriage bench. I was clothed for this time of year and of night, as Gunter had insisted when I’d mentioned to him I’d be getting an early start but not saying exactly to where.
And I was on my way south to The Hague.
CONTINUE TO PART II.
Samuel R. Delany’s recent novels include Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and Dark Reflections. A pioneer of experimentalism in the science-fiction genre and beyond, as well as a critic and memoirist, Delany has received four Nebula awards, two Hugo awards, and the Stonewall Book Award from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association, among many other honors.