Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
“On the hard asphalt, my exacerbated ears and my eager eyes were vainly on the look-out for the soft upheaval of earth from a naked foot. There was no foot anywhere around me. On the hard carapace, there was only the clattering of a thousand hard shells. Had men no longer feet of flesh? A woman passed me, the pink flesh of her calves hardened monstrously in two black terminal conches at the level of the asphalt. I had not seen one single human foot since I disembarked. All along the asphalt, the tide of shells ran level with it. All around, from the pavement to the house rooftops, the bare and echoing shell of the stone turned the street into a basin of granite. This valley of stone was traversed on its axis by a fantastic river of wild and headstrong mechanisms. Never to this day had the automobiles—which I nevertheless knew—seemed to me so sovereign and so mad, so crafty, though still obedient. On the height of paved street that they held, there was not one human being walking. Never had I seen that, teacher of the Diallobé. There before me, in a built-up and inhabited area, along great lengths of roadway, it was given to me to contemplate an expanse that was completely
dehumanized, empty of men. Imagine that, master, in the very heart of the city of men, an expanse forbidden to his naked flesh, forbidden to the alternating contacts of his two feet.…”
“Is that true?” the teacher broke in. “Is it true that at the heart of his own dwelling place the furtive form of man should now know spaces fatal to him?”
The fool trembled with joy over having been so well understood.
“Yes, I have seen it. You know, master, the delicate silhouette which rests on one leg then on the other, in order to advance?”
“Yes. And then?”
“In man’s own dwelling place I have seen these deadly spaces. Mechanisms are reigning there.”
The fool fell silent. Both men remained silent for a long time. Then the teacher asked, gently,
“What else have you seen?”
“Truly? You want me to tell you?”
“Yes, tell me.”
“I have seen the mechanisms. They are shells. It is a rolled-up expanse, which moves. Well, you know that expanse has nothing inside it; therefore it has nothing to lose. It cannot be wounded, like the form of man, but only unrolled. Also, it has forced back man’s form, fearful that it, in being wounded, will lose the internal substance it contains.”
“I understand you. Go on.”
“This expanse moves. Well, you know it was stability itself which made the movement apparent, like its mirror. Now it has begun to move. Its movement is more finished than the progressive jerkings of man’s hesitant form. It
cannot fall—where would it fall to? Also, it has forced back the silhouette of man, which is afraid, in falling, of losing movement.”
Again the fool fell silent. The teacher, supporting himself on his elbow, got up and saw that his visitor was weeping.
The teacher sat down, drew the fool to him, and made him lean against his breast, the fool’s head in the hollow of the teacher’s shoulder. He dried the man’s tears with his bare hand, then, gently, began to rock him to and fro.
“Master, I should like to pray with you,” the fool said, “to repel the upheaval. There is obscene chaos in the world once more, and it defies us.”
The griots are, in certain African countries, a special class of musicians, poets, historians, sorcerers, and the like. Tr.
THE KNIGHT TOOK OFF HIS EYEGLASSES, closed his Koran, and for some time remained motionless, with his face to the east. His countenance was at once grave and serene. Samba Diallo, lying on a rug near him, slipped the pencil from his right hand between the pages of the book he was reading, and looked at his father.
“The Word must continue to echo within him,” the boy said to himself. “He is one of those who do not cease to pray when they have closed their prayer book. To him, God is a constant Presence—constant and indispensable. It is this Presence, I believe, which stretches the skin tight across the bones of his forehead, and sets that luminous and profound expression within the deep-cut orbits of his eyes. His mouth holds no smile, nor does it hold any bitterness. All the profane exuberance of life must certainly be burned out of this man by his profound prayers. My father does not live, he prays …
“But wait a minute! Why did I think that?” he caught himself up. “Why did I think of prayer and life in terms of opposition? He prays, he does not live.… Certainly no one else in this house would have thought that way. I am the only one who could have this bizarre idea of a life which could be lived, in some fashion, outside the presence of God.… Curious. Bizarre idea. Then where could
I have got it? This idea is foreign to me. The astonishment into which it plunges me is proof of that. It is, in any case, an idea that has evolved. I mean to say, an idea that marks a progress in precision over my previous state of mind: it distinguishes; it specifies. There is God and there is life, two things not necessarily intermingled. There is prayer and there is combat. Is this idea right? If I listened to that man sleeping more and more profoundly within me, I should reply, No, this idea is even mad; life is only of a secondary order: it is from time to time. God alone is, continually, uninterruptedly. Life is only in the measure and of the fashioning of the being of God.
“So this man within me would say; would he be right? Evil is of life; is evil of God? There is something even more simple and prosaic; let us take work. I cannot struggle, work, to live and support my family, and at the same time be fully with God. My teacher at the Glowing Hearth prays all the time, except when he is busy cultivating the soil—and even then, to be sure, he is still chanting litanies. But he does not pray in the same way as when he is before the hearth, on his prayer rug. So it is with my father. With him, the case is even more clear. When he is in his office, he is less close to God than the teacher is in the fields. My father’s work absorbs his thought. Carried to its limit, a work in which a man was completely absorbed would keep him all the time outside God. There is no work, it is true, which completely absorbs the man who is engaged in it. But there are countries where great masses of men have long been alienated from God. Perhaps.… Perhaps it is work which makes the West more and more atheistic.… A curious idea.…”
“What are you reading?”
Still seated on his rug, the knight was smiling at his son, in a pause in his prayer.
Samba Diallo held out the book he was still holding in his hand.
Hmm.… Pascal. Of the men of the West, he is certainly the most reassuring. But be distrustful even of him. He had doubted. Exile had known him too. It is true that he came back afterward, running. He wept, sobbing, over having gone astray, and he called upon the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ against that of ‘the philosophers and scholars.’ The road of his return began like a miracle and ended like an act of grace. The men of the West know less and less of the miracle and the act of grace.…”
“But just then I was thinking that perhaps it is because the West works—”
“What do you mean to say? I don’t know if I understand your objection.”
Samba Diallo did not dare to reveal to his father the whole tenor of his thought, and in particular the formidable break which he had believed he discovered. In considering how much he himself had been surprised, he was afraid of worrying him. He tempered his words, therefore:
“You have spoken of Pascal’s exile, thinking no doubt of that part of his life which preceded the
Now this period of dereliction was also a period of intense scientific toil.…”
“Yes, I understand you. But your idea is bizarre.”
The knight regarded his son in silence for several seconds. Then, instead of answering his implied question, he asked,
“Why, in your opinion, does one work?”
“In order to live.”
“Your answer pleases me. But in your place I should have been less categorical. My reply would have been enumerative, in the following form, for example: ‘One can work to live, one can work to outlive, so to speak, in the hope of multiplying the life one has, if not in its duration—one cannot do that as yet—at least in its intensity. The aim of work is then accumulation. One can work—in order to work; that happens.’ My enumeration is not restrictive. Do you admit that I am more in the way of truth than you are, and that my enumeration is just?”
The knight clasped his beautiful hands over his knees. His gaze was lost in the distance before him. “Even while he thinks, he has the air of one praying,” Samba Diallo said to himself. “Perhaps he is really praying? God has indeed entered into his entire being.”
“Therefore,” the knight went on, “one may work from necessity, for the cessation of the great pain of need which wells up from the body and from the earth—to impose silence on all those voices which harass us with their demands. Then, too, one works to maintain oneself, to preserve the species. But one can also work from greed. In this case, one is not trying to block off the pit of need; that has been wholly filled already. One is not even seeking to defer the next date when that need’s claims will come due. One accumulates frantically, believing that in multiplying riches one multiplies life. Finally, one can work from a mania for working—I do not say to distract oneself, it is more frenzied than that; one works like a stereotype. It is with work as with the sexual act: both are aimed at the
perpetuation of the species; but both may have their perversion when they do not justify themselves by this aim.”
His gaze, which had been far off, seemed now to come closer. He changed his position and leaned toward Samba Diallo. “Oh, how handsome he is!” he was thinking, “And how I love him for being so impassioned over his idea!” He asked,
“Would you like us now to enlarge upon and examine these ideas in relation to God?”
“Yes. Let us take the case where work is aimed at the preservation of life. Let us reason about that, since it is the case of necessity. Even in this case work diminishes the place of God in the attention of man. There is a reason why this idea offends me: it seems to me contradictory. The conservation of life—thus the labor which makes it possible—ought to be a work of piety. The contemplation of God is the work of piety
. Whence comes the clash of these two aims, which are nevertheless in other ways the same?”
All the time he was talking, Samba Diallo had kept his eyes lowered, partly to follow out his idea better and partly to escape the knight’s gaze. When he had finished speaking he raised his eyes again. The knight, still in the same posture of prayer, was now smiling, with an air at once delighted and mocking. His eyes were gleaming. “He is sparkling, the monk is sparkling,” Samba Diallo thought.
“Why do you so stubbornly keep your eyes on the floor? Let us rather discuss together, apprentice philosopher,” his father said. He lost his sparkling expression as he continued, after a short pause: “I prefer the ideas that are tried out in the full light of day to those that are
allowed to grow rancid within oneself. It is these last that poison, and sometimes kill.”
He recovered his serenity on the instant and began to smile again.
“To come back to the idea that is worrying you—it seems to me, my young philosopher, that we ought to get a better hold on it, to get it pure and simple, so to speak. Now the idea of work for the preservation of life does not appear to me as sufficiently simple. It has anterior stages.”
“Certainly: for example, the very idea of life, insofar as it has value.”
“Bravo! Let us consider work in the case where it is linked to life by a relation of justification. I say that everything which justifies life and gives it its meaning, in the same way and
, gives work its meaning, too.”
“I see your conclusion,” Samba Diallo said. “When a life justifies itself before God, everything that tends to preserve it—hence, work—is also justified in His eyes.”
“Correct. Work, in effect, is justified before God in strict measure as the life it preserves justifies itself before Him. If a man believes in God, the time he takes from prayer for work is still prayer. It is even a very beautiful prayer.”
Samba Diallo was silent for a long time. The knight was absorbed in his thoughts. He was no longer smiling.
“I add—but this is no more than the expression of a personal conviction—that a life which justifies itself before God would not know how to love exuberance, superabundance. It finds its full flowering, on the contrary, in the consciousness it has of its own littleness compared to the greatness of God. As it goes on its way it becomes larger, but that is of no importance to it.”
“But if the life does not justify itself before God?” the boy asked. “I mean to say, if the man who is working does not believe in God?”
“Then what does it matter to him to justify his work in any other way than by the profit he gets from it? Life in this case is not a work of piety. Life is life, short as that may seem to you.”
They were silent again for some time. Then the knight spoke once more:
“The West is in process of overturning these simple ideas, of which we are part and parcel. They began, timidly, by relegating God to a place ‘between inverted commas.’ Then two centuries later, having acquired more assurance, they decreed, ‘God is dead.’ From that day dates the era of frenzied toil. Nietzsche is the contemporary of the industrial revolution. God was no longer there to measure and justify man’s activity. Was it not industry that did that? Industry was blind, although, finally, it was still possible to domicile all the good it produced.… But already this phase is past.… After the death of God, what they are now announcing is the death of man.”
“I do not understand,” Samba Diallo said.
“Life and work are no longer commensurable. In former times there existed a sort of iron law which decreed, in action, that the labor of one single life was able to provide for only one single life. Man’s art has destroyed this law. The work of a single being supplies nourishment for several others, for more and more persons. But now see: the West is on the point of being able to do without man in the production of work. There will no longer be need of more than a very little life to furnish an immense amount of labor.”