Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between Frederich Ruysch and his mummies
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illeopardi text integral passage complete quotation of the sources comedies works historical literary works in prose and in verses

Translated by Charles Edwardes


O DEATH, thou one eternal thing,
That takest all within thine arms,
In thee our coarser nature rests
In peace, set free from life's alarms:
Joyless and painless is our state.
Our spirits now no more are torn
By racking thought, or earthly fears;
Hope and desire are now unknown,
Nor know we aught of sorrow's tears.
Time flows in one unbroken stream,
As void of ennui as a dream.
The troubles we on earth endured
Have vanished; yet we sometimes see
Their phantom shapes, as in a mist
Of mingled thought and memory:
They now can vex our souls no more.
What is that life we lived on earth?
A mystery now it seems to be,
Profound as is the thought of death,
To wearers of mortality.
And as from death the living flee,
So from the vital flame flee we.
Our portion now is peaceful rest,
Joyless, painless. We are not blest
With happiness; that is forbid
Both to the living and the dead.

RUYSCH -- (outside his laboratory, looking through the keyhole). Diamine! Who has been teaching these dead folks music, that they thus sing like cocks, at midnight? Verily I am in a cold sweat, and nearly as dead as themselves. I little thought when I preserved them from decay, that they would come to life again. So it is however, and with all my philosophy I tremble from head to foot. It was an evil spirit that induced me to take these gentry in. I do not know what to do. If I leave them shut in here, they may break open the door, or pass through the keyhole, and come to me in bed. Yet I do not like to show that I am afraid of the dead by calling for help. I will be brave. Let us see if I cannot make them afraid in their turn.

Entering -- Children, children, what game are you playing at ? Do you not remember that you are dead? What does all this uproar mean? Are you so puffed up because of the Czar's visit, (1) that you imagine yourselves no longer subject to the laws of Nature? I am presuming this commotion is simply a piece of pleasantry on your part, and that, there is nothing serious about it. If, however, you are truly resuscitated, I congratulate you, although I must tell you that I cannot afford to keep you living as well as dead, and in that case you must leave my house at once. Or if what they say about vampires be true, and you are some of them, be good enough to seek other blood to drink, for I am not disposed to let you suck mine, with which I have already liberally filled your veins. In short, if you will continue to be quiet and silent as before, we shall get on very well together, and you shall want for nothing in my house. Otherwise, I warn you that I will take hold of this iron bar, and kill you, one and all.

MUMMY -- Do not put yourself about. I promise you we will all be dead again without your killing us.

RUYSCH -- Then what is the meaning of this singing freak?

MUMMY -- A moment ago, precisely at midnight, was completed for the first time that great mathematical epoch referred to so often by the ancients. To-night also the dead have spoken for the first time. And all the dead in every cemetery and sepulchre, in the depths of the sea, beneath the snow and the sand, under the open sky, and wherever they are to be found, have like us chanted the song you have just heard.

RUYSCH -- And how long will your singing or speaking last?

MUMMY -- The song is already finished. "We are allowed to speak for a quarter of an hour. Then we are silent again until the completion of the second great year.

RUYSCH -- If tliis be true, I do not think you will disturb my sleep a second time. So talk away to your hearts' content, and I will stand here on one side, and, from curiosity, gladly listen without interrupting you.

MUMMY -- We can only speak in response to some living person. The dead that are not interrogated by the living, when they have finished their song, are quiet again.

RUYSCH -- I am greatly disappointed, for I was curious to know what you would talk about if you could converse with each other.

MUMMY -- Even if we could do so, you would hear nothing, because we should have nothing to say to one another.

RUYSCH -- A thousand questions to ask you come into my mind. But the time is short, so tell me briefly what feelings you experienced in body and soul when at the point of death.

MUMMY -- I do not remember the exact moment of death.


RUYSCH -- Why not?

MUMMY -- For the same reason that you cannot perceive the moment when you fall asleep, however much you try to do so.

RUYSCH -- But sleep is a natural thing.

MUMMY -- And does not death seem natural to you? Show me a man, beast, or plant that shall not die.

RUYSCH -- I am no longer surprised that you sing and talk, if you do not remember your death.

"A fatal blow deprived him of his breath;
Still fought he on, unconscious of his death" --

as says an Italian poet. I thought that on the subject of death you fellows would at least know something more than the living. Now tell me, did you feel any pain at the point of death?

MUMMY -- How can there be pain at a time of unconsciousness?

RUYSCH -- At any rate, every one believes the moment of departure from this life to be a very painful one.

MUMMY -- As if death were a sensation, and not rather the contrary.

RUYSCH -- Most people who hold the views of the Epicureans as to the nature of the soul, as well as those who cling to the popular opinion, agree in supposing that death is essentially a pain of the most acute kind.

MUMMY -- Well, you shall put the question to either of them from us. If man be unaware of the exact point of time when his vital functions are suspended in more or less degree by sleep, lethargy, syncope, or any other cause, why should he perceive the moment when these same functions cease entirely; and not merely for a time, but for ever? Besides, how could there be an acute sensation at the time of death? Is death itself a sensation? When the faculty of sense is not only weakened and restricted, but so minimised that it may be termed non-existent, how could any one experience a lively sensation? Perhaps you think this very extinction of sensibility ought also to be an acute sensation? But it is not so. For you may notice that even sick people who die of very painful diseases compose themselves shortly before death, and rest in tranquillity; they are too enfeebled to suffer, and lose all sense of pain before they die.
You may say this from us to whoever imagines it will be a painful effort to breathe his last.

RUYSCH -- Such reasoning would perhaps satisfy the Epicureans, but not those people who regard the soul as essentially different from the body. I have hitherto been one of the latter, and now that I have heard the dead speak and sing I am more than ever disinclined to change my opinions. We consider death to be a separation of the soul and body, and to us it is incomprehensible how these two substances, so joined and agglutinated as to form one being, can be divided without great force and an inconceivable pang.

MUMMY -- Tell me: is the spirit joined to the body by some nerve, muscle, or membrane which must be broken to enable it to escape? Or is it a member which has to be severed or violently wrenched away? Do you not see that the soul necessarily leaves the body when the latter becomes uninhabitable, and not because of any internal violence? Tell me also: were you sensible of the moment when the soul entered you, and was joined, or as you say agglutinated, to your body? If not, why should you expect to feel any violent sensation at its departure? Take my word for it, the departure of the soul is as quiet and imperceptible as its entrance.

RUYSCH -- Then what is death, if it be not pain?

MUMMY -- It is rather pleasure than anything else. You must know that death, like sleep, is not accomplished in a moment, but gradually. It is true the transition is more or less rapid according to the disease or manner of death. But ultimately death comes like sleep, without either sense of pain or pleasure. Just before death pain is impossible, for it is too acute a thing to be experienced by the enfeebled senses of a dying person. It were more rational to regard it as a pleasure; because most human joys, far from being of a lively nature, are made up of a sort of languor, in which pain has no part. Consequently, man's senses, even when approaching extinction, are capable of pleasure; since languor is often pleasurable, especially when it succeeds a state of suffering. Hence the languor of death ought to be pleasing in proportion to the intensity of pain from which it frees the sufferer. As for myself, if I cannot recall the circumstances of my death, it may be because the doctors forbade me to exert my brain. I remember, however, that the sensation I experienced differed little from the feeling of satisfaction that steals over a man, as the languor of sleep pervades him.

THE OTHER MUMMIES -- We felt the same sensation.

RUYSCH -- It may be as you say, although every one with whom I have conversed on this subject is of a very different opinion. It is true, however, they have not spoken from experience. Now tell me, did you at the time of death, whilst experiencing this sensation of pleasure, realise that you were dying, and that this feeling was a prelude to death, or what did you think?

MUMMY -- Until I was dead I believed I should recover, and as long as I had the faculty of thought I hoped I should still live an hour or two. I imagine most people think the same.

THE OTHER MUMMIES -- It was the same with us.

RUYSCH -- Cicero says (2) that, however old and brokendown a man may be, he always anticipates at least another year of life.
But how did you perceive at length that your soul had left the body? Say, how did you know you were dead? . . . You do not answer. Children, do you not hear? . . . Ah, the quarter of an hour has expired. Let me examine them a little. Yes, they are quite dead again. There is no fear that they will give me such another shock. I will go to bed.


(1) See note.

(2) De Senectute.

NOTE. Frederic Ruysch (1638-1731) was one of the cleverest anatomists Holland has ever produced. For sixty years he held a professorship of anatomy at Amsterdam, during which time he devoted himself to his art. He obtained from Swammerdam his secret of preserving corpses by means of an injection of coloured wax. Ruysch, it is said, also made use of his own blood for this purpose. His subjects, when prepared, looked like living beings, and showed no signs of corruption. Czar Peter visited Holland in 1698, and was amazed at what he saw in Ruysch's studio. In 1717 the Czar again visited Holland, and succeeded in inducing Ruysch to dispose of his collection of animals, mummies, &c. These were all transported to St. Petersburg. Ruysch formed a second collection as valuable as the first, which after his death was publicly sold.

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