Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Face of Death

Jean Cocteau

A young Persian gardener said to his Prince:

“Save me! I met Death this morning. He made a threatening face at me. Tonight I would like, by some miracle, to be in Isphahan.”

The bountiful Prince lends him his horses. 

That afternoon, the Prince encounters Death, and asks:

“Why did you make a threatening face at our gardener this morning?”

“It wasn’t a threatening face,” comes the reply, “but a surprised face. For I met him this morning far from Isphahan, and it is in Isphahan that I must take him tonight.”

A certain Chinese Emperor wished to create a library that would be revered and remembered as the greatest library ever assembled. After many years, and a search that involved thousands of people in hundreds of countries, he at last brought together in one building copies of every book that had been written in the entire history of the world. And when he opened his library, all who came to see it did indeed acknowledge it as the greatest library ever assembled. 

But the Emperor himself was discontented. References and allusions in certain tomes hinted at another library, just as vast, which the flames of censorship or the whims of chance had already expurgated: all these he placed, symbolically, on a single empty shelf; and beneath it, his hands cupped as if holding an open volume, a statue of memorial to all the unknown authors. 

But the Emperor remained discontented. Books are mere ink and paper; he had dreamed of assembling the men, the ideas, the tales, the epiphanies, the notions, the dreams, the histories, the parables contained in those books, in order to study at their shrine of universal wisdom, and to drink his fill. But it was already clear to him that there were more ideas, more tales, more wisdom than just these few books had managed to contain: the books of the past that had not been written, the books of the future that had not yet been conceived. So he realised that his library was futile; so he ordered its immediate closure.

To create an anthology is to re-create the Emperor's Library. Or, at least, an alcove in it. If I were able, I would include in this book the complete works of several dozen novelists, poets, playwrights, short-storytellers, plus holy books, mythological works, literary critiques and explications, letters, diaries, encyclopaedia… and still more; until my anthology had grown as large, and as incomplete, as the Emperor's Library. "To arrange a library," Borges has written, and he of all men should know this, "is to practice, in a quiet and modest way, the art of criticism."

Robert Louis Stevenson once famously complained that the book he had in mind was unwriteable. He wished, in that single volume, to say everything there was to say, to encapsulate memory, history, dream, biography, vision, philosophy, experience, encounter: in short, his personal universe. But a book is a finite object, and there was no end to what he had to say. Stevenson abandoned the book. Later, unaware that he was repeating himself, Stevenson responded to a publisher’s request for a theological essay on the nature of God by submitting a sheet of paper on which he had written as many of the names of the divinities and deities as he could find in all known languages, and at its foot, deliberately capitalised, the words “which One?” The publisher invited him to develop out of this a book. Stevenson declined. The book, he insisted, was unwriteable; in its place, perfectly finite, he wrote this parable.

What has any of this to do with the Cocteau? Absolutely nothing. But then, Cocteau didn't write the parable "The Face of Death" – he discovered it in someone else's book, and reproduced it in his own "Le Grand Ecart"; and since that is where I found it, so this is my opportunity to get both the parable, and the genius of Cocteau as a writer, artist and film-maker into this collection.

Death came for Cocteau at the age of 74, at his home in Milly-la-Forêt. Ingmar Bergman, another of the great film-makers of the 20th century, likewise had a fictional encounter with Death, in his film "The Seventh Seal"; he was able to delay Death's inexorable victory by stalling him amid the labyrinthine complexities of a game of chess. Myself, I prefer Woody Allen's version of that event; his protagonist being Jewish, Death comes not as the Grim Reaper but as a defrocked Rabbi; instead of chess they play gin rummy.

The illustration at the top of this page is one of my favourite works of modern art, a horse constructed, quite literally, from the words of the Persian poet and mystic Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī, better known by his pen name, Hāfez. The artist is Jila Peacock.

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