Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between Columbus and Pietro Gutierrez
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Translated by Charles Edwardes

COLUMBUS -- A fine night, friend.

GUTIERREZ -- Fine indeed; but a sight of land would be much finer.

COLUMBUS -- Decidedly. So even you are tired of a life at sea.

GUTIERREZ -- Not so. But I am rather weary of this voyage, which turns out to be so much longer than I expected. Do not, however, think that I blame you, like the others. Rather, consider that I will, as hitherto, do all I can to help you in anything relating to the voyage. But just, for the sake of some talk I wish you would tell me candidly and explicitly, whether you are as confident as at first about finding land in this part of tho world; or if, after spending so much time to no purpose, you begin at all to doubt.

COLUMBUS -- Speaking frankly as to a friend who will not betray me, I confess I am a little dubious; especially because certain evidences during the voyage, which filled me with hope, have turned out deceitful; for instance, the birds which flew over us from the west, soon after we left Gomera, and which I considerered a sure sign of land not far distant. Similarly, more than one conjecture and anticipation, made before setting out, regarding different, things that were to have taken place, during tho voyage, have failed of realisation. So that at length I cannot but say to myself, "Since these predictions in which I put the utmost faith have not been verified, why may not also my chief conjecture, that of finding land beyond the ocean, be also unfounded?" It is true this belief of mine is so logical, that if it be false, on the one hand it would seem as if no human judgment could be reliable, except such as concern things actually seen, and touched; and on the other hand, I remember how seldom reality agrees with expectation. I ask myself, "What ground have you for believing that both hemispheres resemble each other, so that the western, like the eastern, is part land and part water? Why may it not be one immense sea? Or instead of land and water, may it not contain some other element? And, supposing it to have land and water like the other, why may it not be uninhabited? or even uninhabitable? If it be peopled as numerously as our hemisphere, what proof have you that rational beings are to be found there, as in ours? And if so, why not some other intelligent animals instead of men? Supposing they be men, why not of a kind very different from those you are acquainted with; for instance, with much larger bodies, stronger, more skilful, naturally gifted with much more genius and intelligence, more civilised, and richer in sciences and arts?"

These thoughts occur to me. And in truth, we see nature endowed with such power, so diverse and manifold in her effects, that we not only are unable to form a certain opinion about her works in distant and unknown parts of the world, but we may even doubt whether we do not deceive ourselves in drawing conclusions from the known world, and applying them to the unknown. Nor would it be contrary to probability to imagine that the things of the unknown world, in whole or part, were strange and extraordinary to us. For do we not see with our own eyes that the needle in these seas falls away from the Pole Star not a little towards the west? Such a thing is perfectly novel, and hitherto unheard of by all navigators; and even after much thought I can arrive at no satisfactory explanation of it. I do not infer that the fables of the ancients regarding the wonders of the undiscovered world and this ocean are at all credible. Annonus, for instance, said of these parts, that the nights were illumined by flames, and the glow of fiery torrents, which emptied themselves into the sea. We observe also, how foolish hitherto have been all the fears of miraculous and terrible novelties felt by our fellowsailors during the voyage; as when, on coming to that stretch of seaweed, which made as it were a meadow in the sea, and impeded us so greatly, they imagined we had reached the verge of navigable waters.

I say this simply because I wish you to see that although this idea of mine about undiscovered land may be founded on very reasonable suppositions, in which many excellent geographers, astronomers, and navigators, with whom I conversed on the subject in Spain, Italy, and Portugal, agree with me, it might yet be fallacious. In short, we often see many admirably drawn conclusions prove erroneous, especially in matters about which we have very little knowledge.

GUTIERREZ -- So that in fact you have risked your own life, and the lives of your companions, on behalf of a mere possibility.

COLUMBUS -- I cannot deny it. But, apart from the fact that men daily endanger their lives for much frailer reasons, and far more trifling things, or even without thinking at all, pray consider a moment.

If you, and I, and all of us were not now here in this ship, in the middle of this ocean, in this strange solitude, uncertain and hazardous though it be, what should we be doing? How should we be occupied? How should we be spending our time? More joyfully perhaps? More probably, in greater trouble and difficulty; or worse, in a state of ennui?

For what is implied in a state of life free from uncertainty and danger? If contentment and happiness, it is preferable to all others; if weariness and misery, I know nothing so undesirable.

I do not wish to mention the glory and useful intelligence that we shall take back with us, if our enterprise succeed, as we hope. If the voyage be of no other use to us, it is very advantageous, inasmuch as it for a time frees us from ennui, endears life to us, and enhances the value of many things that we should not otherwise esteem.

You remember perhaps what the ancients say about unfortunate lovers. These used to throw themselves from the rock of St. Maur (then called Leucadia) into the sea; being rescued therefrom, they found themselves, thanks to Apollo, delivered from their love passion. Whether or not this be credible, I am quite sure that the lovers, having escaped their danger, for a short time even without Apollo's assistance, loved the life they previously hated; or loved and valued it increasedly. Every voyage is, in my opinion, comparable to the leap from the Leucadian rock, producing the same useful results, though these are of a more durable kind.

It is ordinarily believed that sailors and soldiers, because incessantly in danger of their lives, value existence more lightly than other people. For the same reason, I come to a contrary conclusion, and imagine few persons hold life in such high estimation as soldiers and sailors. Just as we care nothing for many benefits as soon as we possess them; so sailors cherish and value, very greatly, numerous things that are far from being good, simply because they are deprived of them. Who would think of including a little earth in the catalogue of human benefits? None but navigators; and especially such as ourselves, who, owing to the uncertain nature of our voyage, desire nothing so much as the sight of a tiny piece of land. This is our first thought on awaking, and our last before we fall asleep. And if at some future time we chance to see in the distance the peak of a mountain, the tops of a forest, or some such evidence of land, we shall scarcely be able to contain ourselves for joy. Once on terra firma, the mere consciousness of being free to go where we please will suffice to make us happy for several days.

GUTIERREZ -- That is all very true; and if your conjecture only prove to be as reasonable as your justification of it, we shall not fail to enjoy this happiness sooner or later.

COLUMBUS -- Personally, I think we shall soon do so; though I dare not actually promise such a thing. You know we have for several days been able to fathom; and the quality of the matter brought up by the lead seems to me auspicious. The clouds about the sun towards evening are of a different form and colour to what they were a few days ago. The atmosphere, as you can feel, is warmer and softer than it was. The wind no longer blows with the same force, nor in so straightforward and unwavering a manner; it is inclined to be hesitating and changeable, as though broken by some impediment To these signs add that of the piece of cane we discovered floating in the sea, which bore marks of having been recently severed; and the little branch of a tree with fresh red berries on it; besides, the swarms of birds that pass over us, though they have deceived me before, are now so frequent and immense, that I think there must be soma special reason for their appearance, particularly because we see amongst them some which do not resemble sea birds. In short, all these omens together make me very hopeful and expectant, however diffident I may pretend to be.

GUTIERREZ -- God grant your surmises may be true.

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