"The Lemoine Affair" by Maeterlinck

   We1 have asked ourselves more than once during the course of the last few years, but never quite so urgently as during the Lemoine affair, whether chemistry was capable of manufacturing diamonds. The response from the scholars has been much like this: on the day, which may be quite soon, that we are able to raise carbon to temperatures that up until now we have been unable to obtain, the problem of manufacturing diamonds will be resolved. To be sure it is already astonishing to think that modern science, with the terrible means of destruction that it possesses and which may not be resisted for very long, if they, the best fortified positions, the most seasoned armies and fleets, are not themselves similarly armed, to be sure it is odd that after such a long-lasting siege it has no longer been able to force the issue in the palace of coal before which it has set siege, where since the beginning of the world the fabulous king of light sleeps in the darkness, on whose existence such a price is placed and so much coveted, that upon the mere promise of the prize, the swindlers succeed in advance in getting a part of the reward. We have succeeded in breaking into a few rooms in the vanguard, the first of the entrance halls, where in each one a glittering sleeper has been placed to deceive the assailant who, believing himself to be master of the diamond, will withdraw from the siege, happy for an easy victory that he will not realize is incomplete, proud of a dazzling but false trophy. And the servant who is thus dedicated to protecting the sleep and covering the hiding place of the old king who has been sleeping for twenty thousand years in the very heart of the enchanted dwelling and has still heard nothing, has taken such care to cover up his brightness and to feign his resemblance, that if we do not place a check on the identity of the captive with more care than we employ to verify the realities, infinitely more precious to us, of destiny and prosperity, we will not for a moment doubt that we have captive in our hands the authentic Prince who traces his origin back to the very source of light, brother of the one who, imprudently leaving his palace whose doors had been opened to him by the fires of nature, daily falls defenceless into the hands of man in the mines of the Cape or the Americas. But the scholars that have themselves ordered the siege of the magic palace with greater precision than would ever have been practised in any war however recent, the most reputed military men, the most expert engineers have warned us that it is only in the final conflagration of flames that we can make ourselves master of the old refugee king on the last balcony of his blazing palace. And they are quick to tell us that the brilliant captive from whom we take our glory is merely the... merely the..., who to tell the truth has made use of the same artifices in order to deceive us as are employed by jewellers and ladies themselves when, not having any diamonds, they still want to make us believe that they are wearing them, which goes to prove that the intelligence of gemstones is not perhaps so essentially different from that of man as has always been believed, but rather that a single intelligence suffuses the entire universe and unifies it in the communion of desire and the similitude of guile.
   And up until now the most crushing forces that the scholars have at their command, to which by comparison the conflagrations of our forefathers were nothing but the result of some pretty colours, about as harmless as the warmth of a June sun, or the purple of sunsets, the forces that in one second shatter the resistance of iron and steel and make them tumble submissively like a small drop of silver in a crystal urn, none was yet able to overwhelm that dwelling that has the appearance of a coal merchant's house in which there hides, safe and sound over an infinitely longer period of time than man has spent on the earth, the king on whose existence we have placed the price of fabulous sums, so that the false promise of success in the enterprise exhorts money from the financiers and becomes a new industrial foundation for swindlers.
   And we may rest assured that if man had taken some risk in pursuit of its hiding place and made himself master of its destiny, half the efforts that he expends without a thought to charm the diamond from its dwelling place or to force the amaryllis or cyripedium to produce a double flower, then misfortune, illness, and to be sure even death itself would be very close to being banished for ever from human existence. And to be sure by dint of living side by side with it chance has finished up by sometimes taking something away, although quite rarely, from the goals of human intelligence. To be sure it is not impossible that an arrow shot from the tower of a cathedral by a blindfolded madwoman, might land in the middle of a group of blind skaters, and make a direct hit on a hermaphrodite.2 To be sure the adventures of Watteville3 such as we have read in Saint-Simon, have something in them that reveals in modern-day chance a notable progress over ancient chance, that has not undergone contact with the intelligence, that which is the blind, irreversible, multiple, unique and absolute resilience of Greek tragedy.
   Despite that, such examples are rare, and even in the realms where it is easiest to become master of it, to domesticate it and to make a slave of this master that we call upon only when we have need of it, in the realm of medicine it is unbelievable to what extent we still entrust it almost entirely to the government of a life whose well-being and purpose it knows absolutely nothing about, whereas we need only call upon it over some purely mechanical difficulty on which we are less expert than it is, and which by leading it step by step, and explaining to it point by point what we desire, we will be entrusting it merely to lubricate afresh or even to redefine the areas of jurisdiction that up until now it was ordinarily content to break. In the presence of a contagious illness, as long as we are not struck down, the doctors give it a name of greater or lesser receptivity, and when we are struck down, of greater or lesser vital resistance, forbearing in any case to forbid us through diet or regimen a nourishment and animation that we would be incapable of adopting, and to address the transpiration instead of the summons of the four mysterious flowers of which the venerable borage in our gardens of such beneficial lassitude to which it was immediately eager to comply, the imperious injunctions of a sudorific to which it almost always remains insensible.4 Its only real power is to metamorphose with the help of sedatives the old beneficial fever, that exorcised pain in three days and saw it off without coming back, into an ill-fated, innumerable, incessant, inexhaustible discomfort, that returns after each lull with a new viaticum of ills, and to bring back through the insidious entreaties of morphine or the more deadly sting of laudanum, the stream of good natural secretions, charged for all time with the cleansing of our body and the cleanliness of its arteries and that go to carry far off from it any mortiferous germs and poisons. At most with the help of antispasmodics it may succeed in sparing the heart the fatigue of dyspnoea, by imposing upon it one infinitely more dangerous and having found through cunning the means to make sleep the constant yet ever vigilant guardian of our vital forces, always so miraculously unyielding and energetic, so indefatigable, so attentive, so sensitive, so indispensable, the myocardium.
   In these times when death (that speed reawakens on each step in the road), can emerge from every crack in the wheel rim, stone on the road, emerges from every crack in the axle, and is forced to walk behind us to embellish our triumph, confirming only by a quite dreadful howl of rage our arrival at the snapdragons of the meadow [...], concealed behind the speed, it consumes before us the innumerable, terrible, needless and incessant mirage of its temptations, conceals the rock where it5 is crouching, makes appear straight the winding road on which it is lying in wait, screens in a cloud of dust the other motor car aboard which it is riding, makes the road appear wide enough for two motor cars to pass where only the one can travel in a straight line without falling into the abyss over which the road is suspended, shortens the time needed for one to overtake us, lengthens the time we take to avoid it, in reality it is powerless to stop on the road along which, saluted in our passage by the snapdragons that let escape from their saffron lips the drop of dew that dawn entrusts to them like a secret they must keep until midday, we rush forward at a speed that is both terrifying and peaceful.


1. Variant text:
    We have often asked ourselves during the course of these last few years, but no doubt never with as much intensity as during the Lemoine affair, if it were possible or not to manufacture diamonds. The response of the most audacious chemists currently seems to be this. No, we still cannot manufacture diamonds, the substances obtained are not true diamonds, but it is only a question of time. As soon as we are able to submit carbon to a sufficient temperature we will have diamond. Most certainly it is already rather strange to think that this palace of coal in which since the dawn of the world the fabulous prince of light has been sleeping has still not been able to be shaken by the most cleverly combined efforts in a calculated siege where the assailant was equipped with explosives such as could not be withstood by a town any more than by a fleet or an army. And to be sure...

2. Proust is apparently inspired here by a phrase in Temple enseveli (1902), a phrase for which he expresses his predilection - and his amusement - in a note in Sésame et les lys (p. 81): "M. Maeterlinck wishes to express a very common idea that sometimes there is such a thing as accidental justice: 'As it may happen that an arrow, shot by a blind man into a crowd, by chance hits a parricide.'"
Elsewhere in his pastiche Proust is inspired by other works of Maeterlinck, notably Double jardin (1904) and L'Intelligence des fleurs (1907).

3. Abbé Jean de Wateville whose character and extraordinary adventures were outlined by Saint-Simon.

4. Variant text:
    The old borage in our gardens of such beneficial lassitude, the four sacred, kindly, inseparable and analogous flowers, whose cabalistic number multiplies their sedative functions, the linden that promotes a sleep as light as the shadow of its leaf and the perfume of its flower, finally the early morning but excellent cherry stalk that one still finds perfuming the little kettle of tissane on the stoves in certain provincial kitchens and which sings while it constitutes its beverage like a well meaning and slightly comical fairy, in readiness to supply to an invalid with a well-intentioned precipitation the good duties of a child.

5. ie Death.


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