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When I first read this book, apparently I missed reading Walter Fowlie's wonderful Introduction. Reading introductions, prefaces, forewords, and acknowledgments of books is an acquired taste, similar to eating the crust of bread slices — it's not for the young. In this passage Fowlie explains the process of the book:
[page ix] A young chieftain, un jeune caïd, the protagonist, is being gradually instructed by his father, who was the founder of the empire and who is in full control of the inhabitants. The young caïd is taught to discern which moral and behavioral factors elevate, and which degrade the people. He learns to recognize those aspects of civilization that strengthen the empire, and those that may cause its decline.
Straight away on page 3, the father's homily to his son begins with the theme of "pity led astray." He talks of how he pitied beggars and even sent his doctors to heal their sores. Then one day he "discovered that beggars cling to their stench as to something rare and precious."
[page 3] For I had caught them scratching away their scabs and smearing their bodies with dung, like the husbandman who spreads manure over his garden plot, so as to wean from it the crimson flower. Vying with each other, they flaunted their corruption, and bragged of the alms they wrung from the tender-hearted. He who had wheedled most likened himself to a high priest bringing forth from the shrine his goodliest idol for all to gape at and heap with offerings. When they deigned to consult my physician, it was in the hope that hugeness and virulence of their cankers would astound him. And how nimbly they shuffled their stumps to have room made for them in the market places! Thus they took the kindness done them for a homage, proffering their limbs to unctions that flattered their self-esteem.
If the process of the book is homily, the theme is citadelle — the home, the fortress, the castle in which we dwell. That "inner courtyard" that we build up around our selves, "as the cedar builds itself upon the seed."
[page 13, 14] For I perceived that man's estate is as a citadel: he may throw down the walls to gain what he calls freedom, but then nothing of him remains save a dismantled fortress, open to the stars. And then begins the anguish of not-being. Far better for him were it to achieve his truth in the homely smell of blazing vine shoots, or of the sheep he has to shear. Truth strikes deep, like a well. A gaze that wanders loses sight of God. And that wise man who, keeping his thoughts in hand, knows little more than the weight of his flock's wool has a clearer vision of God than [anyone]. Citadel, I will build you in men's hearts.
[page 15] For I have lit on a great truth: to wit, that all men dwell, and life's meaning changes for them with the meaning of the home.
And now we come upon the theme within the theme: the meaning of things. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote this entire book about the meaning of things. This theme is like sand flowing through the hourglass of this wonderful book — the sand of the hourglass has no meaning in itself, the meaning in us, what meaning we make of the flowing sand. This review of Citadelle gives me a chance to place my hand into the hourglass of time and allow me to share with you, dear Reader, some grains of sand that flow through my fingers.
In the story of his father's house, the process of homily, the citadel in which men dwell, and the meaning of things all come together with a flourish. The son is led to understand his father's house as he contemplates its destruction. The son comes to see the value, the meaning, of his father's house, whose walls were the constraints his father had shaped for the son to come to know himself. Those walls, which after his father's death, were doomed — when some dolt came and questioned the meaning of things.
[page 18] That is why I hate irony, which is not a man's weapon, but the dolt's. For the dolt says to us: "These practices of yours do not obtain elsewhere. So why not change some of them?" As who should say: "What obliges you always to house your harvest in the barn and the cattle in the shed?" But it is he who is the dupe of words, for he knows not that something which words cannot comprehend. He knows not that men dwell in a house.
As the story unfolds, one cannot help but remember the 1960s when so many questions were asked about our culture, when so many young people demonstrated against old traditions, and when so many beautiful structures were laid in ruins to be replaced by concrete parking lots and the ilk.
[page 18, 19] And then his victims, now that the house has lost its meaning for them, fall to dismantling it. Thus men destroy their best possession, the meaning of things: on feast days they pride themselves on standing out against old custom, and betraying their traditions, and toasting their enemy. True, they may feel some qualms as they go about their deeds of sacrilege. So long as there is sacrilege. So long as there still is something against which they revolt. Thus for a while they continue trading on the fact that their foe still breathes, and the ghostly presence of the laws still hampers them enough for them to feel like outlaws. But presently the very ghost dissolves into thin air, and the rapture of revolt is gone, even the zest of victory forgotten. And now they yawn.
[page 19] On the ruins of the palace they have laid out a public square; but once the pleasure of trampling its stones with upstart arrogance has lost its zest, they being to wonder what they are doing here, on this noisy fairground. And now, lo and behold, they fall to picturing, dimly as yet, a great house with a thousand doors, with curtains that billow on your shoulders and slumbrous anterooms. Perchance they dream even of a secret room, whose secrecy pervades the whole vast dwelling. Thus, though they know it not, they are pining for my father's palace where every footstep had a meaning.
And where in that palace is this meaning to be found? Surely not in the bricks, the stones, the tiles that comprise the palace, because if the owner were to dismantle the palace into a pile of brick and stones, "he would not be able to discover therein the silence, the shadows and the privacy they bestowed." But rather it is in the heart and soul of the architect who dreamed of and built the palace. This is the author's song to the human spirit.
[page 21] I, the architect; I, who have a heart and soul; I, who wield the power of transforming stone into silence. I step in and mold that clay, which is the raw material, into the likeness of the creative vision that comes to me from God; and not through any faculty of reason. Thus, taken solely by the savor it will have, I build my civilization; as poets build their poems, bending phases to their will and changing words, without being called upon to justify the phrasing of the changes, but taken solely by the savor these will have, vouched for by their hearts.
The book theme has moved from the citadel, to the meaning of things, to the "I" or human spirit that infuses the world with its aliveness and creativity. One cannot speak of such things without soaring thoughts and magniloquent words; one cannot speak of such things unless one writes as eloquently as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
He speaks of how the breast beam of one's ship groans when the storm tosses one's ship about and how the Earth itself groans when an earthquake tosses one's house about: "Only behold today how that which should be silent is giving tongue." And when the Earth begins to speak, what is it that men are fearful for?
[page 26] We trembled, not so much fearing for ourselves as for all the things we had labored to perfect, things for which we had been bartering ourselves lifelong. As for me, I was a carver of metal, and I feared for the great silver ewer on which I had toiled for years; for whose perfection I had bartered two years of sleepless nights. Another feared for the deep-piled carpets he had rejoiced to weave. Every day he unfurled them in the sun; he was proud of having bartered somewhat of his gnarled flesh for that rich flood of color, deep and diverse as the waves of the sea. Another feared for the olive trees he had planted. But, Sire, I make bold to say, not one of us feared death; we all feared for our foolish little things. We were discovering that life has a meaning only if one barters it day by day for something other than itself. Thus the death of the gardener does no harm to the tree; but if you threaten the tree the gardener dies twice.
If we follow his line of thought we must come to the conclusion that whatever one spends one's life doing, whatever one barters one's life for is important in itself for that very reason: it is an investment into which we have poured our most precious asset, our hours.
[page 30] So it is with the object of the barter; and the fool who thinks fit to blame that old woman for her embroidery — on the pretext that she might have wrought something else — out of his own mouth he is convicted of preferring nothingness to creation.
For Antoine de Saint-Exupéry there is only love for the craftsman and disdain for those who surround themselves only with luxuries bought from merchants, those who give nothing of themselves to life.
[page 30] No love have I for the sluggards, the sedentaries of the heart; for those who barter nothing of themselves become nothing. Life will not have served to ripen them. For them Time flows like a handful of sand and wears them down.
As my own parents aged, they were never sedentary; always their hands were full of something to do. For my mother it was knitting booties, sewing quilts, making pine needle baskets, crocheting centerpieces, or painting the duck decoys my dad carved. For my dad, when he wasn't carving his decoys of Tupelo Gum wood, he was carving up the ground to plant okra, potatoes, corn, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes. I thought of my dad poring over his wood burning tool for hours as he etched the feathers into the bare wood of his otherwise finished decoy when I read this passage from this book:
[page 33] I saw, too, my one-legged cobbler busy threading gold into his leathern slippers and, weak as was his voice, I guessed that he was singing. "What is it, cobbler, that makes you so happy?" But I heeded not the answer; for I knew that he would answer me amiss and prattle of money he had earned, or his meal, or the bed awaiting him — knowing not that his happiness came from his transfiguring himself into golden slippers. . .
As I read further into this book, I became the caïd, the young chieftain being instructed by the older chieftain Saint-Exupéry and his words burned into me like the feathers burning to life under my own father's wood-burning tool. With each page I turned, another fiery thought was burned into me.
[page 52] If you wish them to be brothers, have them build a tower. But if you would have them hate each other, throw them corn.
[page 70] What you do, you stablish; and that is all. If when progressing towards a certain goal, you make-believe to move towards another, only he who is tool of words will think you clever. We do not deceive the tree; it grows as we train it to grow — and all else is words that weave the wind.
[page 73] 'Tis the art of reasoning that leads men to make mistakes.
[page 79] Then your temple will draw them to it like a magnet and in its silence they will search their souls — and find themselves!
[page 97] That alone is useful which resists you.
[page 98] . . . the living tree clutches the earth and molds it into flowers.
Some of the lessons the great chieftain gave to his son was about his generals and his police. These I found most instructive and would like to share them with you. First the generals of his army:
[page 90] Thus I made answer to my generals when they came and talked to me of "Order," but confused the order wherein power is immanent with the layout of museums. . . . my generals hold that those things only are in order which have ceased to differ from each other. Did I let them have their way, they would "improve" those holy books which reveal an order bodying forth God's wisdom, by imposing order on the letters, as to which the merest child can see they are mingled with a purpose. My generals would put all the A's together, all the B's and so forth; and thus they would have a well-marshalled book; a book to the taste of generals.
Years ago I discovered that when one holds a question unanswered in one's mind for a time, sooner or later the answer rises into consciousness as if it had been there all the time and needed time for it to arrive. Answering such a question immediately with one's conscious mind substitutes a pale simulacrum for the true answer that else arrive later. I expressed this idea in Matherne's Rule #25 which says, "What is the power of an unanswered question?" In this next passage I discovered the power of unasking a question or discovering that a question was essentially a meaningless question and not worthy of asking in the first place.
[page 129] For it has been brought home to me that man's "progress" is but a gradual discovery that his questions have no meaning. Thus when I consult my learned men, far from having found answers to last year's questions, lo, I see them smiling contentedly to themselves because the truth has come to them as the annulment of a question, not its answer.
We have all argued our positions with others and have usually found no resolution in the argument, only bad feelings on both parts, up until now. The author offers us this worthy advice.
[page 136] Thus I would have you refrain from wranglings — which lead nowhere. When others reject your truths on the strength of facts averred by them, remind yourself that you, too, on the strength of facts averred by you, reject their truths, when you fall to wrangling with them. Rather, accept them. Take them by the hand and guide them. Say, "You are right, yet let us climb the mountain together." Then you maintain order in the world and they will draw deep breaths of eager air, looking down on the plain which they, too, have conquered.
[page 152] Confuse not love with the raptures of possession, which bring the cruellest of sufferings. For, notwithstanding the general opinion, love does not cause suffering: what causes it is the sense of ownership, which is love's opposite.
[page 154] Then take today as it is given you, and chafe not against the irreparable. "Irreparable" indeed means nothing; it is but the epithet of all that is bygone. And since no goal is ever attained, no cycle ever completed, no epoch ever ended (save for the historian, who invents these divisions for your convenience), how dare you affirm that any steps you have taken which have not yet reached, and never will reach, their consummation, are to be regretted? For the meaning of things lies not in goods that have been amassed and stored away — which the sedentaries consume — but in the heat and stress of transformation, of pressing forward, and of yearnings unassuaged.
[page 161] For you can only give what you transform, as the tree gives the fruits of the earth which it has transformed. The dancer gives the dance into which she has transformed her walking steps.
The last story is about the chieftain's police officers, who "in their lush stupidity" have confronted him and insisted that they have discovered a sect responsible for the downfall of the empire. So the chieftain asked them, "And how do you know that these men are working in concert?"
[page 330] Then they told me of certain signs they had noticed, showing that these men formed a secret society, and of certain coincidences in the things they did, even naming the place where they held their meetings.
When the chieftain asked how this secret society was a danger to the empire, they told him of their crimes, rapes, ignobility, and their repellant appearance. The chieftain did not dispute their claim of a dangerous secret society, instead he followed the advice given above in the quotation from page 136 and invited them to climb the mountain together.
[page 331] "Well," I said, "I know a secret society that is still more dangerous, for no one has ever thought of fighting against it."
"What is it, Sire?"
And now they were agog with eagerness; for the police officer, being born to use his fists, wilts if there be none on whom to ply them.
"The secret society," I answered, "of those men who have a mole on the left temple."
As his policemen protested that they had seen no signs of such meetings, the chieftain claimed that made them all the more dangerous. But as soon as he will denounce them in public, they will be seen banding together. Then a former carpenter coughed and spoke up saying he knew a man who had a mole on his left temple who was "honest, gentle, open-hearted" and was wounded defending the empire. The chieftain said they should waste no time on exceptions.
[page 332] Once all the men who bear that mark have been traced out, look into their past. You will find they have been concerned in all manner of crimes: from rapes and kidnappings to embezzlement and treason, and public acts of indecency — not to mention their minor vices such as gluttony. Dare you tell me they are innocent of such things?"
The policemen shook their fists in anger and cried, "No, no!" But the carpenter spoke up and questioned what if one's father, brother or kin had a mole on the left temple. The chieftain's anger rose once more.
[page 332] "More dangerous still is the 'sect' of those who have a mole on the right temple. And, in our innocense, we never gave them a thought! Which means they hide themselves yet more cunningly. Most dangerous of all is the 'sect' of those who have no mole on their faces, for clearly such men disguise themselves, like foul conspirators, so as to do their evil work unnoticed. So, when all is said and done, I can but condemn the whole human race — since there is no denying that it is the source of all manner of crimes; rapes and kidnappings, embezzlement and treason and public acts of indecency. And inasmuch as my police officers, besides being police officers, are men, I will begin my purge with them, since 'purges' of this sort are their function. Therefore I order the policeman who is in each of you to lay hold of the man who is in each of you, and fling him into the most noisome dugeon of my citadel."
As the policemen were going out, the chieftain asked the carpenter to stay and dismissed him from his police, saying that "the carpenter's truth . . . is no truth for police officers."
[page 333] "If the code sets a black mark against those who have a mole on the back of the neck, it is my pleasure that my police officers, at the mere mention of such a man, feel their fists clenching. And it is likewise my pleasure that your sergeant major weighs your merits by your skill in doing an about turn. For had he the right to judge for himself he might condone your awkwardness because you are a great poet. And likewise forgive the man beside you, because he is a paragon of virtue. And likewise with the man next after him, because he is a model of chastity. Thus justice would prevail. But now suppose that, on the battlefield, a swift and subtle feint, hinging on an about turn, is called for, then you will see my troops blundering into each other, hugger-mugger, and the enemy profiting by their confusion to wipe them out! And much consolation will it be to the dying that their sergeant major thinks well of them! Therefore I send you back to your boards and planks, lest your love of justice, operating where it is misplaced, lead one day to a useless shedding of blood."
In a nutshell, in the police or the army you gotta have men about you that are good at doing about faces.
We have learned in this booklong homily about pitying a beggar, about tearing down a palace, about how places have meaning, and about the meaning of things. These things we learned as the sands of wisdom poured through the hourglass of this book. When the last grain of sand flowed past the neck of the hourglass, the chieftain closed his homily to his son thus: "This morning I have pruned my rose trees."
Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne
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