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Monday, 13 April 2009

The Hieroglyphic History

Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723)


Istoria ieroglifică / The Hieroglyphic History (1703-5)

The Hieroglyphic History, written between 1703 and 1705 in Constantinople, is a dense, hermetic text, an allegorical novel describing the Byzantine power struggle between two realms: that of the beasts (Moldavia), ruled by the Lion, and that of the birds (Wallachia), ruled by the Eagle. A whole host of beasts and birds represent historical figures and moral types: for example, the Unicorn (Dimitrie Cantemir), the trusty Hawk (Thoma Cantacuzino), the tyrannical Crow (Constantine Brîncoveanu), and the dissembling, villainous Chameleon (Skarlataki Roset), who betrayed Cantemir to the Turks and who is described as “the seed of perfidiousness, the root of evil, the scion of squalor, the branch of infamy, the touchwood of sycophancy, the fount of perjury, the parable of insolence”. The Hieroglyphic History is at once a political treatise and philosophical essay on the nature and discourses of power. Labyrinthine in structure, the text is baroque in the true sense of the word, with highly ornate periods encrusted with humanist maxims (“seven hundred and sixty sentences”) and parenthetical explanations. In addition, the novel is interspersed with twelve exemplary tales, such as that of the swineherd whom Fortune causes to be made king but who governs according to the spirit of the pigsty. The world Cantemir envisages is governed by hunger and a permanent struggle for either survival or the satiation of greed. Ultimately, only higher spirits, such as the Unicorn, which represents the ideal of the enlightened ruler, can rise above the bestial turmoil.


excerpt from The Hieroglyphic History

The Unicorn, on hearing these words that flamed with the ardour of truth and spoke of the woes he saw would befall justice, readily understood and not drawing out any further talk, he thanked the Hawk for not having concealed the whole truth about him, and in this fashion he said: “After the oaths which for love and friendship between us thou hast made from the sole inclination of thy heart, henceforth I am beholden to name thee brother. So, my dear brother, I shall in brief tell thee a tale, I pray thee hark not idly, for in threefold wise and as though through three gates may we enter within the palaces of the knowledge of things: by examples of things past, by familiarity with things present, and by right reckoning of things to come. As histories are one part of this sentence, from the many here is but one: Once, brother, there was a swineherd, who on wages from all the village wherein he dwelled made his living day by day; passing his days in such a lowly life as this, other than the sound of grunting pigs, and other than the sight of that lowly village, nothing else did this man learn; but one day, he fell to talking with another, who was from the city and chanced to be passing through that place, and the name of the city sounded in the swineherd’s ears. The city, howsoever it might be, could in no wise find room in his mind, and oft he imagined it as stove, at other times as a chimney, and at still other times he pictured it as a cattle shed, for the imagination of the lowly is capable only of picturing those things it has seen. And so his appetite was inflamed to find out what a city might be, and letting the pigs loose in the field and taking with him some crusts of bread in his hood, down the road whence the traveller had come he stoutly set off. Journeying all day until evening, where the darkness caught up with him there he took his repose and his meal. Fortune, which seeks out both swineherd and potter with the same blindness, had borne the swineherd to close by the gates of the city and the fate that there awaited him. Because the emperor, who once ruled that realm and in that city reigned, had the previous day departed from amongst the living leaving no heir of his flesh, among the lords and senators of that monarchy there was now great uproar and bickering, for all reckon themselves worthy to rule, and not one willingly accepts subservience. In short, as not one of them considered himself second to another, by joint counsel they had agreed to go out of the eastern gate of the city the next day and to elevate to the imperial throne and to the crown of the kingdom whomever they first should meet, whether he be a foreigner or a citizen. So, after the council that evening, they rose in the morning (for nor was the swineherd’s luck slumbering) and discovered the swineherd awakening in the field by the road and rubbing his gummy eyes. They straightway lifted him up in honour, removed his tattered rags and clothed him in the purple. They seated him in the imperial litter and with great pomp bore him to the imperial court. According to the custom of the place, all the ceremonials of coronation were performed; whence the saying today a churl tomorrow an earl. To the swineherd this thing that had palpably and truly occurred oft seemed a dream, oft a semblance, oft a fairy tale. And one of the senators said to the others: “That which fortune works neither the mind nor reflection can undo, but even if the crow’s egg hatched for a thousand years at the peacock’s breast, from the crow’s not the peacock’s shell would the chick emerge, in such a fashion this emperor too in time will reveal not wherefore fortune brought him but wherefore nature bore him; and do not reckon my prophecy to be concocted from vain imaginings, but heed his words and deeds. For behold, as soon as he was elevated to the might of empire, he was seized not by humaneness but by swinishness, and all those against whom he held a grudge in the village where he herded the pigs, some he killed, others he banished, and others he inflicted with divers punishments. It is a vile thing for the new master to triumph according to an old grudge.” And in truth his kingdom, because of his tyranny, arrived at great danger of collapse. And like a fire in dry straw his evil on every side broke out and spread, and was later known to all as an insufferable thing. And thus they all rose up and, finding him in the sheets where he wallowed in all kinds of filth, they put an end to his days and his tyranny.

In such wise, brother, does the epitropy of the Crow appear, for, crow that he is, so his words, sayings and deeds are those of a Crow; and in time, with his own voice he shall unto himself be the chastising judge of his own prophecy and augurs. But when and how the writ of fate will come to pass, mortal eyes will never be able to read.”

Thus, the Unicorn and the Hawk, having drawn morals and talked into the night, rose and, embracing and kissing each other fraternally, again swore by the name of the heavenly Eagle inseparable friendship unto the death, succour and a helping hand to each other in all danger, and eternal and untainted love. And taking their leave, the Hawk returned to his place and the Unicorn, knowing that the mountain paths were barred, for those that dwelled in the mountains were wont to bar the paths until the break of day, and reckoning that thither he was unable to wend his way back, swam across the waters entrusting himself to the waves.

Oh, piteous thing impenetrable to human reckoning, how is it that divine providence allows the righteous to be tormented by cunning traps and suffers the pure to fall into the snare of the defiled? But in truth were it not that the proofs of ancient cases unravelled the aporia of this thing, with no small perspiration of soul would the philosophy of the atomists comprehend the minds of mortals and together with them worldly things; whereby, raising the supposition τῶν αὐτομάτων, an unknown judgement on the unknown touching everything from beginning to end, and firmly setting each case at its time and in its order, it remains that any simpleton can with the eyes of the soul descry from visible things those invisible, and understand, just as evil persists until the evil day, and the good like metal in a fire is necessarily ascertained.

So the Unicorn giving himself up to the care of the unceasing waves of water, a path that was not without great uncertain peril, as was later to be seen, for not his reckoning but the immutable decision of fate deceived him, although from many forms of peril it is a wise thing to choose the smallest and lightest, and at the upper edge of the water, swimming northwards, the greedy beast of prey kept watch by night, wakefully stalking the paths of travellers. Whither came the Unicorn (oh, storm in calm waters! oh, the breaking of the ship upon the shore! oh deed undone and tale untold and unheard, straightway reviled by all! oh, work of the devil wrought by the cunning of the Chameleon! oh, Chameleon more devilish than the devil! oh, creature tainted and more inimical and more savage than any other beast!), and behold calamitously the crocodile crashing and bellowing in the waves of the water was upon him. The Unicorn, first of all hearing the roar of the water, then seeing the visage of the terrible beast, straightway sensed the perfidious trap that had been readied in advance and without resistance gave himself up to his insatiable hunter. To swallow him the Crocodile now gapes wide his jaws, the Unicorn comprehends the whole image of the perfidious trap and the triumph of perfidy, and says: “Sate thyself on innocent blood, O Crow, for which thou hast ever thirsted and craved.”

The Crocodile, on hearing these words from the Unicorn, reined in the greed of his jaws and strove to discover why the name of the Crow had been brought to bear, for not even to the crocodile had the feculent Chameleon revealed his perfidious scheme.

The Unicorn, all of a sudden neither resisting nor willing to answer, like the lamb brought to the slaughter, meekly falls silent, and from the depths of his heart cries: “O, justice! O, victory!” (for in mischance the deed acknowledges the doer, like the son that complains to the parent of his plight). And after a while he fell to reckoning (for in time of need the wise thing is to make use of and to endeavour with the word). And to the beast he thus began to speak: “Do not reckon, O beast, that I am affrighted by thy terrible visage, or because now I am in thy power, or that no comfort is to be found; well do I know that neither my body can be consumed by thy stomach nor my horn be ingurgitated by thy throat. Likewise, let not this seem to thee any new distress, such as has been given to my soul, since from youth and even from childhood I am accustomed and wont to play with fortune and to fight in every wise, so that there is nothing her wrath has not hurled at me, and there is nothing that I have not suffered, and hence it seems to me that she has all the more strenuously emptied the arrows from her quiver, whereby either the eternal design shall be fulfilled or henceforth my indulgence shall mock her trials (for the greater the peril is reckoned, the stronger is its end hoped for). All we mortals bear two fates within our breast, one of which is death, the other life, and by their nature both of them from the hour of our conception accompany us in all parts, in all places and at all times. So, whatever is the design that stretches before us, willy-nilly we must follow it; there is no lack of mortals who think the fate of death to be the ultimate terror; but those truly wise have ever been wont to mock at it. Mockery, I say, but to others fright, and make reckoning with them; fright, I say, to others, for dying is not learnt by living: make reckoning with them, for by living all too slowly is dying learnt, and thus, they do not take fright at the most terrible of terrors, which, whatever the circumstances might be, traversing the period of being, they avoid, they die, and, escaping from the bondage of fortune, they find salvation; which thing seems and is to them not the greatest terror but the final comfort. So as long as my natural fate is known, expected and unheeded by me, all the more vigorously will accidental fate (whose point is insignificant) be unheeded and defeated, against which inimical fate it is fitting to raise the shield of the valiant soul. Indeed, bitter grief would my heart have felt if my foe had snared me for my idleness or miscalculation (for rightly is it fitting for one to sorrow, when, by his pride and heedlessness, he brings upon himself his own fall and distress); and now as the future decision stands unvanquished and on all sides unshaken, it is necessary neither to spread the sails to the wind nor hopelessly to abandon the helm, for the one is a thing for the fool and the other for the coward. And as it was foreordained that the storm should wreak its wrath upon me, in the name of things divine, mortal wiles with goading and synchoresis have sold my inimical fate into thy jaws. And by no means is it the counsel of the wise to say, ah, I deceived myself! ah, I did not reckon that such a thing would come to pass! but when in the name of the divine the earthly succumbs to the deception that might befall it, great comfort and triumphal hope remain to it, for the name that those without law have made an organ and machinery of their evil, let it be to him a protector in troubles, a help in tight places and a victory on the day of his wrath. So, O beast, if, as to the thing they have wrought, the divine powers do not err like earthly men, in the holy one whom thou hast in great heedlessness defiled I have the good and undoubted hope that in a short time (for to him that knows how to suffer all time is short) thou shalt reap thy just desserts. And if not, I defy the cunning of fate and endure all with a good heart. And now, O beast (if in the race of crocodiles there is any inkling of good), dost thou remember that at the edge of three waters, at that city which is the key to two kingdoms, we once found ourselves, and thou having nothing whereby to quell thy hunger, I did assist thee with plenteous food and from the jaws of death (who is a beast more evil and more inimical than thee) did I save thee; therefore, for past good deeds, or for future hope (for the stone from the wall is in time laid again in a wall), look thou not to unfriendly incitements, but by tomorrow set me free from here, for by daylight, either the good or the evil that befall me will remain under the title of thy name; and from tomorrow hence thou shalt be capable of doing me neither evil nor good; for either the hounds that pursue me will transform the face of my fortune or I shall thwart their efforts, for many a time the night bears issue and the day lends support.”

The Crocodile, on hearing these the Unicorn’s bold words, neither wholly understood the discourse, nor could decide what do first. For one because he well saw, according to the words of the Unicorn, that that fruit and the meal of that throat were not for his teeth, and for another because remembering the good deed that the Unicorn had once done him he felt shame, and that aroused his ire (since for those that know not how to repay a good deed, first shame is stirred up from remembrance and from shame ire). In the end, evil by nature vanquishing the moral good, for the race of crocodiles is famed for its mercilessness, he took the Unicorn to his lair, where overnight he held him fast.

(translation from Romanian (c) Alistair Ian Blyth, Bucharest, 2009)

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