Maurice Maeterlinck ~ The Temple of Chance

roue-de-fortune

I

I sacrificed—for it is a sacrifice to forsake the incomparable play of the stars and moon on the divine Mediterranean—I sacrificed a few evenings of my stay in the land of the sun to the consulting of the most mystic god of this world of ours in the busiest, the most gorgeous and the most individual of his temples.

This temple stands down there, at Monte Carlo, on a rock bathed in the dazzling light of the sea and sky. Enchanted gardens, where blossom in January all the flowers of spring, summer and autumn, sweet-scented thickets that borrow nothing from the hostile seasons but their perfume and their smiles lie before its porch. The orange, most lovable of all trees, the palm, the lemon-tree, the mimosa wreathe it with gaiety. The crowds approach it by royal stairways. But, mark you, the building is not worthy of the admirable site which it commands, of the delicious hills, the azure and emerald gulf, the happy meadows that surround it. Nor is it worthy either of the god whom it shelters or of the idea which it represents. It is insipidly emphatic and hideously blatant. It suggests the low insolence, the overweening conceit of the flunkey who has grown rich but remains obsequious. Examination shows it to be solidly built and very large; nevertheless, it wears the mean and sadly pretentious air of the ephemeral palaces of our great exhibitions. The august father of Destiny has been housed in a sort of meringue covered with preserved fruits and sugar castles. Perhaps the residence was purposely made ridiculous. The builders may have feared lest they should warn or alarm the crowd. They probably wished to make it believe that the kindliest, the most frivolous, the most harmlessly capricious, the least serious of the gods awaited his worshippers on a throne of cakes inside this confectioner’s master-piece. Ah, no; a mysterious and grave divinity reigns here, a wise and sovereign force, harmonious and sure. He should have been throned in a bare marble palace, severe, simple and colossal, high and vast, cold and spiritual, rectangular and rigid, positive and overwhelming.

II

The interior corresponds with the exterior. The rooms are spacious, but decorated with hackneyed magnificence. The acolytes of Chance, the bored, indifferent, monotonous croupiers, look like shop-assistants in their Sunday clothes. They are not the high-priests, but the office-clerks of Hazard. The rites and implements of the cult are vulgar and commonplace: a few tables, some chairs; here, a sort of bowl or cylinder that turns in the centre of each table, with a tiny ivory ball that rolls in the opposite direction; there, a few packs of cards; and that is all. It needs no more to evoke the immeasurable power that holds the stars in suspense.

III

Around the tables crowd the faithful. Each of them carries within himself hopes, belief, different and invisible tragedies and comedies. This, I think, is the spot in which more nervous force and more human passions are accumulated and absolutely squandered than in any other in the world. This is the ill-omened spot where the peerless and, perhaps, divine substance of substances, which, in every other place, works pregnant miracles, prodigies of strength, of beauty and of love, this is the fatal spot where the flower of the soul, the most precious fluid on the planet, leaks away into nothingness!… No more criminal waste can be conceived. This unprofitable force, which knows neither whither to go nor what work to do, which finds no door nor window, no direct object nor manner of transmission, hovers over the table like a mortal shadow, falls back upon itself and creates a particular atmosphere, a sort of sweating silence which somehow suggests the fever of true silence. In this unwholesome stillness, the voice of Fate’s little book-keeper snuffles out the sacred formula:

Faites vos jeux, messieurs, faites vos jeux!

That is to say, make to the hidden god the sacrifice which he demands before he shows himself. Then, somewhere from the crowd, a hand bright with certainty places imperiously the fruit of a year’s work on numbers that cannot fail. Other adorers, more cunning, more circumspect, less confident, compound with luck, distribute their chances, compute illusive probabilities and, having studied the mood and peculiarities of the genius of the table, lay complex and knowing traps for it. Others, again, hand over a considerable portion of their happiness or their life, at random, to the caprice of numbers.

But now the second formula resounds:

Rien ne va plus!

That is to say, the god is about to speak! At this moment, an eye that could pierce the easy veil of appearances would distinctly see scattered on the plain green cloth (if not actually, then at least potentially; for a single stake is rare, and he who plays of his superfluity to-day will risk his all to-morrow) a corn-field ripening in the sun a thousand miles away; or, again, in other squares, a meadow, a wood, a moonlit country-house, a shop in some little market-town, a staff of book-keepers and accountants bending over ledgers in their gloomy offices, peasants labouring in the rain, hundreds of work-girls slaving from morn to night in deadly factories, miners in the mines, sailors on their ship; the jewels of debauchery, love or glory; a prison, a dockyard; joy, misery, injustice, cruelty, avarice; crimes, privations, tears. All this lies there, very peacefully, in those little heaps of smiling gold, in those flimsy scraps of paper which ordain disasters which even a life-time would be powerless ever to efface. The slightest timid and hesitating movements of these yellow counters and blue notes will rebound and swell out in the distance, in the real world, in the streets, in the plains, in the trees, in men’s blood and in their hearts. They will demolish the house that saw the parents die, carry off the old man’s chair, give a new squire to the astonished village, close a workshop, take away the bread from the children of a hamlet, divert the course of a river, stay or break a life and, through an infinity of time and space, burst the links of an uninterrupted chain of cause and effect. But none of these resounding truths utters an indiscreet whisper here. There are here more sleeping Furies than on the purple steps of the palace of the Atridæ; but their cries of waking and of pain lie hidden at the bottom of men’s hearts. Nothing betrays, nothing foretells that there are definite ills hovering over those present and choosing their victims. Only, the eyes stare a little, while hands shiftily finger a pencil, a bit of paper. Not an unaccustomed word or gesture. Clammy expectation sits motionless. For this is the place of voiceless pantomime, of stifled fighting, of unblinking despair, of tragedy masked in silence, of dumb destiny sinking in an atmosphere of lies that swallows up every sound.

IV

Meanwhile, the little ball spins on the cylinder, and I reflect upon all that is destroyed by the formidable power conferred on it through a monstrous compact. Each time that it thus starts in search of the mysterious answer, it annihilates all around it the last essential remnants of our social morality: I mean, the value of money. To abolish the value of money and substitute for it a higher ideal would be an admirable achievement; but to abolish it and leave in its place simply nothing is, I conceive, one of the gravest crimes that can be committed against our scheme of evolution. If we look at it from a certain point of view and purify it of its incidental vices, money is essentially a very worthy symbol: it represents human effort and labour; it is, for the most part, the fruit of laudable sacrifice and noble toil. Whereas here, this symbol, one of the last that was left to us, is daily subjected to public mockery. Suddenly, at the caprice of a little thing as insignificant as a child’s toy, ten years of striving, of conscientious thought, of tasks patiently endured lose all importance. If this hideous phenomenon were not isolated on this one rock, no social organization but would have fallen victim to the injury spreading from it. Even now, in its leprous isolation, this devastating influence makes itself felt at a distance that never could have been estimated. We feel that this influence, so inevitable, so malevolent and so profound, is such that, when we leave this cursed palace where gold clinks incessantly against the human conscience, we wonder how it is that the everyday life goes on, that patient gardeners consent to keep up the flower-beds in front of the fatal building, that wretched guardians can be found to watch over its precincts for a contemptible wage and that a poor little old woman, at the bottom of its marble stairs, amid the coming and going of lucky or ruined gamblers, for years persists in earning a laborious livelihood by selling pennyworths of oranges, almonds, nuts and matches to the passers-by.

V

While we are making these reflections, the ivory ball slackens its course and begins to hop like a noisy insect over the thirty-seven compartments that allure it. This is the irrevocable judgment. O strange infirmity of our eyes, our ears and that brain of which we are so proud! O strange secrets of the most elementary laws of this world! From the second at which the ball was set in motion to the second at which it falls into the fateful hole, on the battle-field three yards long, in this childish and mocking form, the mystery of the Universe inflicts a symbolical, incessant and disheartening defeat upon human power and reason. Collect around this table all the wise men, all the divines, all the seers, all the sages, all the prophets, all the saints, all the wonder-workers, all the mathematicians, all the geniuses of every time and every country; ask them to search their reason, their soul, their knowledge, their Heaven for the number so close at hand, the number already almost part of the present at which the little ball will end its race; beg them, so that they may foretell that number to us, to invoke their gods that know all, their thoughts that govern the nations and aspire to penetrate the worlds: all their efforts will break against this brief puzzle which a child could take in its hand and which no longer fills the smallest moment’s space. No one has been able to do it, no one will ever do it. And all the strength, all the certainty of the “bank,” which is the impassive, stubborn, determined and ever-victorious ally of the rhythmical and absolute wisdom of Chance, lies solely in the establishment of man’s powerlessness to foresee, were it but for the third of a second, that which is about to happen before his eyes. If, in the span of nearly fifty years during which these formidable experiments have been made on this flower-clad rock, one single being had been found who, in the course of an afternoon, had torn the veil of mystery that covers, at each throw, the tiny future of the tiny ball, the bank would have been broken, the undertaking wrecked. But that abnormal being has not appeared; and the bank well knows that he will never come to sit at one of its tables. We see, therefore, how, in spite of all his pride and all his hopes, man knows that he can know nothing.

VI

In truth, Chance, in the sense in which the gamblers understand it, is a god without existence. They worship only a lie, which each of them pictures to himself in a different shape. Each of them ascribes to it laws, habits, preferences that are utterly contradictory, as a whole, and purely imaginary. According to some, it favours certain numbers. According to others, it obeys certain rhythms that are easily grasped. According to others again, it contains within itself a sort of justice that ends by giving an equal value to each group of chances. According to others, lastly, it cannot possibly favour indefinitely any particular series of simple chances for the benefit of the bank. We should never come to an end if we tried to review the whole illusory corpus juris of roulette. It is true that, in practice, the indefinite repetition of the same limited accidents necessarily forms groups of coincidences in which the gambler’s deluded eye seems to discern some phantom laws. But it is no less true that, upon trial, at the moment when you rely upon the assistance of the surest phantom, it vanishes abruptly and leaves you face to face with the unknown which it was masking. For the rest, most gamblers bring to the green cloth many other illusions, conscious or instinctive, and infinitely less justifiable. Almost all persuade themselves that Chance reserves for them special and premeditated favours or misfortunes. Almost all imagine some undefined but plausible connection to exist between the little ivory sphere and their presence, their passions, their desires, their vices, their virtues, their merits, their intellectual or moral power, their beauty, their genius, the enigma of their being, their future, their happiness and their life. Is it necessary to say that there is no such connection; that there could be none? That little sphere whose judgment they implore, upon which they hope to exercise an occult influence, that incorruptible little ball has something else to do than to occupy itself with their joys and sorrows. It has but thirty or forty seconds of movement and of life; and, during those thirty or forty seconds, it has to obey more eternal rules, to resolve more infinite problems, to accomplish more essential duties than would ever find place in man’s consciousness or comprehension. It has, among other enormous and difficult things, to reconcile in its brief course those two incomprehensible and immeasurable powers which are probably the biform soul of the Universe: centrifugal force and centripetal force. It has to reckon with all the laws of gravitation, friction, the resistance of the air, all the phenomena of matter. It has to pay attention to the smallest incidents of the earth or sky; for a gambler who leaves his seat and imperceptibly disturbs the floor of the room, or a star that rises in the firmament, compels it to modify and begin anew the whole of its mathematical operations. It has no time to play the part of a goddess either well or ill-disposed towards mortals; it is forbidden to neglect a single one of the numberless formalities which infinity demands of all that moves within it. And, when, at last, it attains its goal, it has performed the same incalculable work as the moon or the other cold and indifferent planets that, outside, above, in the transparent azure, rise majestically over the sapphire and silver waters of the Mediterranean. This long work we call Chance, having no other name to give to that which we do not as yet understand.

DMdJ Neu1

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