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Giovanni Papini
1881-1956

   

The Sick Gentleman's Last Visit

by Giovanni Papini 

Translated by Alberto Manguel



   
 

No one ever knew the real name of the man we all called the Sick Gentleman. Since his sudden disappearance everything that was his has vanished as well, everything except the memory of his unforgettable smile, and a portrait of Sebastiano del Piombo which shows him half hidden in the soft shadow of a fur coat, one gloved hand drooping delicately like the hand of someone asleep. A few of those who loved him truly - and I count myself as one of the few - also remember his remarkable skin of a transparent and pale yellow hue, the almost feminine lightness of his step, and his constantly vacant look. He enjoyed talking for hours on end but no one ever grasped the full meaning of his words. I even know of some who did not wish to understand him because the things he said were too horrible. His presence lent a fantastic tint to the simplest things: when his hand touched an object, the object seemed to enter and become part of the world of dreams. His eyes reflected no things that were there but other unknown and faraway things not seen by those who were with him. No one ever asked him what his illness was, or why he did not seem to try to cure it. He spent his time walking, always, day and night, without stopping. No one knew where he lived; no one ever met his parents or his brothers or sisters. One day he just appeared in town and then another day, some years later, he vanished. 

The day before his disappearance he came to my room to wake me, very early, when dawn was just beginning to break. I felt the soft touch of his glove on my forehead and saw him standing in front of me, wrapped in his furs, with the ghost of a smile on his lips and his eyes more absent than ever. I realized, seeing his red eyelids, that he had been awake all night, and that he must have waited for dawn with great anxiety because his hands were trembling and his entire body seemed to shake with fever. 

"What is the matter?" I asked. "Is your illness causing you more discomfort than usual?" 

"My illness," he answered. "My illness? Do you too believe, like the others, that I have an illness? Why not say that I myself and an illness? There is nothing that actually belongs to me! It is I, who belong to someone, and that someone is my master!" 

Accustomed as I was to his strange talk, I didn't answer. I continued to look at him and my look must have been gentle because he came even nearer to me bed and again touched my forehead with his soft glove. 

"You do not seem to have a temperature," he said. "You are perfectly healthy and calm. Your blood runs peacefully through your veins. I can therefore tell you something that perhaps will frighten you: I can tell you who I am. Listen carefully, please, because I may not be able to say the same things twice. But it is necessary that I say them at least once." 

With this, he let himself fall into a purple armchair beside my bed, and carried on in a stronger voice. 

"I am not a real man. I am not a man like others, a man of flesh and blood, a man born of woman. I did not come into this world like your fellow men. No one rocked me in my cradle, or watched over my growing years. I have not known the restlessness of adolescence, or the comfort of family ties. I am - I am but a figure in a dream . In me, Shakespeare's image has become literally and tragically exact. I am such stuff as dreams are made on! I exist because someone is dreaming me, someone who is now asleep and dreaming and sees me act and live and move, and in this very moment is dreaming that I am saying these very words. When this someone began to dream me, I began my existence. When he wakes I will cease to be. I am an imagination, a creation, a guest of his long nightly fantasies. This someone's dream is lasting and intense to such a degree that I became visible even to those who are awake. But the world of watchfulness, the world of solid reality is not mine. I feel uncomfortable in the midst of your tangible and vulgar existence! My life flows slowly in the soul of my sleeping creator . . . 

"Don't think I speak symbolically or in riddles. What I am saying is the truth - the whole, simple and tremendous truth. 

"To be an actor in a dream is not what pains me most. There are poets who have said that man's life if but the shadow of a dream, and philosophers who have hinted that all reality is but hallucination. I instead, am haunted by another thought: who is this someone who dreams me? Who is this nameless, unknown being to whom I belong, who suddenly brought me out of the darkness of his tired brain and whose awakening will just as suddenly extinguish me, like a flame in the wind? How many days have I spent thinking of this master of mine, asleep; thinking of my creator busy with the course of my ephemeral life! He must be someone great and powerful, a being for whom years are minutes, someone who can live the entire life of a man in just one of his nights. His dreams must be so vivid and powerful and deep that they can cast forth images in such a way that they seem real. Perhaps the whole world is but the ever-changing result of the crossing of dreams dreamt by beings identical to him. But I won't generalize: let us leave metaphysical trifling to reckless philosophers! For me, it is enough to know with absolute certainty that I am the imaginary creature of a vast and enormous dreamer. 

"But who is he? That is the question that's been troubling me for so long, ever since I discovered the nature of the stuff I was made on. Surely you understand how important this question is to me? On its answer hangs my entire fate. The actors in dreams enjoy ample freedom, and for that reason my life has not been entirely determined by my birth but to a large extent by my free will. However, it has become necessary for me to know who it was that was dreaming me in order to choose my way of life. At first I was terrified by the idea that the slightest thing might wake him - that is, destroy me. A shout, a noise, a whisper might suddenly fling me into nothingness. In those days I used to care for life, so I would torture myself in vain, trying to guess the tastes and passions of my unknown master, trying to give to my existence the attributes and shapes that might please him. All the time I trembled with the thought that I might commit an act that would offend him, frighten him - and therefore wake him. For a while I imagined him to be a sort of paternalistic, evangelic deity, and I tried to lead the most virtuous and saintly of lives. At another time I pictured him as a classic pagan hero, and I would crown myself with vine-leaves and sing songs in praise of wine and dance with young nymphs in forest clearings. Once I believed that I was part of the dream of a pure and immortal sage who managed to live in a superior spiritual world, and I spent long sleepness nights counting the stars and measuring the earth and trying to find out how living creatures were made. 

"But in the end I grew tired, humiliated to think I was but the spectacle of this unknown and unknowable master. I realized that the fiction of a life was not worth such base and servile flattery. And I began to wish ardently for that which in the beginning had caused me such terror - his awakening. I deliberately filled my life with gruesome images so that the sheer horror might wake him. I tried everything to achieve the peace of annihilation, I did all within my power to interrupt the sad comedy of my apparent life, to destroy this ridiculous larva of a life that somehow likens me to men. 

"I left no crime untouched, no infamy untasted. With refined tortures I murdered innocent old people, I poisoned the waters of entire cities, I set fire to the hair of hundreds of women. Grown wild through my death-wish, I tore apart with my teeth the children I met on the way. At night I sought the company of monstrous dark giants forgotten by mankind. I took part in the incredible villanies of trolls, demons and ghosts. I threw myself from the top of a mountain into a broken and naked valley surrounded by caverns of white bones. Witches taught me the shrieks of wild beasts that at night put fear into the hearts of the bravest men. But it seems that he who dreams me isn't frightened by those things which make ordinary men tremble. Perhaps he enjoys watching horrible sights, perhaps he doesn't care or perhaps it doesn't affect him. Until this day I have not been able to wake him, so I must drag on with this ignoble life, wretched and unreal. 

"Who will free me from my dreamer? When will the dawn come that will put an end to his work? When will the bell toll, the cock crow, the voice call that will wake him? I have been waiting so long for my day of freedom! I have been waiting so eagerly for the end of this foolish dream in which I play so monotonous a part! 

"What I am doing now is my last attempt. I am telling my dreamer that I am a dream. I want him to dream that he is dreaming. That is something that happens to men, doesn't it? And don't they wake, once they realize they are dreaming? That's why I have come to see you and that's why I have told you everything. I hope he who has created me understands that at this at this very minute I do not exist as a real man, for as soon as he does I shall cease to exist, even as an unreal image. Do you think I will succeed? Do you think that by repeating it and shouting it I will manage to awaken my invisible master?" 

And while he was saying these words, the Sick Gentleman tossed and turned in the armchair, pulling off and putting on the glove of his left hand, staring at me with eyes that seemed to grow more and more vacant. It was as if he expected something terrible and marvellous to happen at any minute. His face took on an agonized expression. From time to time he would stare at his own body as if expecting it to dissolve into thin air, and he would nervously pass a hand across his damp forehead. 

"Do you believe all this to be true?" he asked me. "Or do you think I'm lying? But why can't I disappear, why can't I be free of it all? Is it that I'm part of an everlasting dream, the dream of an immortal sleeper, of an eternal dreamer? Help me get rid of this terrible notion! Console me, find me some plan, some way to escape from this horror! I beg you, help me! Will no one pity this poor, bored apparition?" 

As I remained silent, he stared at me once again and then stood up. He seemed to me taller than before, and once again I noticed his almost diaphanous skin. One could see he was suffering terribly. His whole body seemed convulsed: he looked like an animal trying to escape from a net. The soft gloved hand shook mine, for the last time. Murmuring something very gently he left my room, and only one person has seen him since. 

 
           
             

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Last updated:
May 5, 2004
   
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