Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
At this point in his reflections the knight had something like an hallucination. A spot on our globe was burning with a blinding brilliance, as if a fire had been lighted on an immense hearth. At the heart of this fierce light and heat a swarm of human beings seemed to be giving themselves over to an incomprehensible and fantastic mimicry of worship. Emerging from all sides, from deep valleys of shadow, floods of human creatures of all colors were pouring in; and in the measure of their approach to the hearth, these beings took up, insensibly, the rhythm which encompassed them, while under the effect of the light they lost their original colors, which gave way to the wan tint that filled the air roundabout.
The knight closed his eyes to banish the vision. To live in the shadow, to live humbly and peaceably at the obscure heart of the world, to live from his own substance and his own wisdom.…
So when he had received the letter from the chief of the Diallobé the knight had remained seated for a long time. Then he had got up, gone to a corner of the courtyard, turned his face toward the east, and prayed long and earnestly to his Lord. Samba Diallo would go to the school, if such was the will of God.
He had refrained from any sort of outburst at the time of the boy’s return. But through his calm and his
affectionate solicitude Samba Diallo had perceived profound grief. In the face of this disapproval which was not expressed, this sadness by which the knight was not crushed, in the face of this silence of his father’s, Samba Diallo had melted into tears, and a thousand times regretted his departure from the Glowing Hearth.
On that first night, it would seem that Nature had wished to associate itself with a delicate thought of the boy’s, for the luminous twilight had scarcely died away when a thousand stars had sprung forth in the sky. The moon was born at the heart of their scintillating festival, and a mystic exaltation seemed suddenly to fill the night.
The house was silent. The knight, stretched out on a chaise longue on the veranda, was absorbed in meditation. The women, grouped around the mother of the family, were talking in very low tones.
Samba Diallo quietly left his room on the court, walked up and down and across, and then, slowly, recited the prelude to the Night of the Koran,
which he offered to the knight. His voice, scarcely audible at first, gradually rose and grew stronger. Progressively, he felt that an emotion was sweeping through him in an experience he had never had before. Every word had ceased, throughout the house. The knight, at first lying down indifferent to what was going on about him, had stood up when he heard the voice of Samba Diallo, and it seemed now that in listening to the Word he sustained the same levitation as that which increased the teacher’s stature. Samba Diallo’s mother had detached herself from the group of women
and come close to her son. From feeling himself listened to, so, by the two beings whom he loved the most, from knowing that on this enchanted night he, Samba Diallo, was repeating for his father what the knight himself had repeated for his own father, what from generation to generation through centuries the sons of the Diallobé had repeated for their fathers, from knowing that he had not failed in this respect and that he was about to prove to all who were listening that the Diallobé would not die in him—from all this, there was a moment when Samba Diallo was on the point of fainting. But he considered that it was important for him, more than for any of those who had preceded him, to acquit himself to the full on his Night. For it seemed to him that this Night marked an end. This scintillation of the heavens above his head, was it not the star-studded bolt being drawn upon an epoch that had run its course? Behind that bolt a world of stellar light was gently glowing, a world which it was important to glorify one last time. His voice, which had progressively risen as if linked to the thrust of the stars, was raised now to a pathetic fullness. From the depths of the ages he felt, springing up in him and breathed out by his voice, a long love which today was threatened. In the humming sound of this voice there was being dissolved, bit by bit, a being who a few moments ago had still been Samba Diallo. Insensibly, rising from profundities which he did not suspect, phantoms were assailing him through and through and were substituting themselves for him. It seemed to him that in his voice had become muffled innumerable voices, like the voice of the river on certain nights.
But the voice of the river was less vehement, and also less close to tears. The voice of the river did not carry
along with it this refusal which was now being cried out in the voice of Samba Diallo; nor did it have the accompaniment of this nostalgic chant.
For a long time, in the night, his voice was that of the voiceless phantoms of his ancestors, whom he had raised up. With them, he wept their death; but also, in long cadence, they sang his birth.
It was the custom that the child who had completed his studies in the Koran and returned to his parents should, in their honor, recite the Holy Book from memory throughout all of one night.
ON THE HORIZON, IT SEEMED AS IF THE EARTH were poised on the edge of an abyss. Above the abyss the sun was suspended, dangerously. The liquid silver of its heat had been reabsorbed, without any loss of its light’s splendor. Only, the air was tinted with red, and under this illumination the little town seemed suddenly to belong to a strange planet.
Behind his closed window, Paul Lacroix stood waiting. Waiting for what? The whole town was waiting too, in the same dismayed expectation. The man’s gaze wandered over the sky, where long lines of red rays were joining the sun, dying at a zenith invaded by invidious shade. “They are right,” he thought, “I really believe that this is the moment. The world is about to come to an end. The moment is fragile. It may break. Then, time will be blocked off. No!” Paul Lacroix stopped short of articulating this No. With a brusque gesture he pulled the green curtain that hung above the window down over the reddened glass. The office took on the appearance of a bluish-green aquarium. Paul Lacroix made his way slowly back to his chair.
At his desk, Samba Diallo’s father had remained motionless, as if indifferent to the cosmic drama being played out outside. His white boubou had turned to violet. Its broad folds helped by their immobility to give him the
appearance of a figure of stone. “Jean is right.” Lacroix thought. “He has the air of a knight of the Middle Ages.”
He turned and spoke to him:
“Does this twilight not trouble you? Myself, I am upset by it. At this moment it seems to me that we are closer to the end of the world than we are to nightfall.”
The knight smiled.
“Reassure yourself. I predict for you a peaceful night.”
“You do not believe in the end of the world?”
“On the contrary, I even hope for it, firmly.”
“That is just what I was thinking. Here everyone believes in the end of the world, from the most simple-minded peasant to the man of great cultivation. Why? I have been asking myself; and only today, with this twilight, I have begun to understand.”
The knight looked attentively at Paul.
“Let me ask you a question in my turn: you truly do not believe in the end of the world?”
“No, obviously. The world will not come to an end—at least not to the end that is expected here. That a catastrophe might destroy our planet—of that I do not speak.”
“Our most simple-minded peasant does not believe in such an end as that, episodic and accidental. His universe does not admit of accident. In spite of appearances, his concept is more reassuring than yours.”
“That may well be. Unfortunately for us, it is my universe which is true. The earth is not flat. It has no steep slopes which give upon the abyss. The sun is not a candelabrum set upon a blue porcelain dais. The universe which science has revealed to the West is less immediately human, but confess that it is more solid.”
“Your science has revealed to you a round and perfect
world, in infinite movement,” said the knight. “It has reconquered that world from chaos. But I believe that in so doing it has laid you open to despair.”
“Not at all. It has liberated us from fears—childish and absurd fears.”
“Absurd? What is absurd is the world which does not end. When will one know the truth—all the truth? As for us, we still believe in the coming of truth. We hope for it.”
Then that is it, Paul Lacroix thought. The truth which they do not now possess, which they are incapable of conquering, they hope for in the end. It is so in the case of justice, also. All they want and do not have—instead of trying to conquer it, they await it at the end.…
He did not express this thought. He merely said:
“As for us, we conquer a little more of truth each day, thanks to science. We do not wait.…”
I was sure that he would not have understood, thought the knight. They are so fascinated by the returns they get from the implement that they have lost sight of the infinite immensity of the workyard. They do not see that the truth which they discover each day is each day more contracted. A little truth each day—to be sure, that must be, that is necessary. But the Truth? To have
, must one renounce
Like Paul Lacroix, he did not express this thought aloud. He said, instead:
“I believe that you understand very well what I want to say to you. I do not contest the quality of the truth which science discloses. But it is a partial truth; and insofar as there will be a future, all truth will be partial. Truth takes its place at the end of history. But I see that we are setting out on the deceptive road of metaphysics.”
“Why do you say ‘deceptive’?”
“ ‘To every word one can oppose another’—is that not what one of your ancient philosophers has said? Tell me frankly if this is not still your conviction today.”
“No. And, if you please, let us keep away from metaphysics. I should like to know your world.”
“You know it already. Our world is that which believes in the end of the world: which at the same time hopes for it and fears it. Just now, I rejoiced greatly when it seemed to me that you were in anguish there in front of the window. See, I was saying to myself, he has a foreboding of the end.…”
“No, it was not anguish, truly. It did not go so far as that.”
“Then from the bottom of my heart I wish for you to rediscover the feeling of anguish in the face of the dying sun. I ardently wish that for the West. When the sun dies, no scientific certainty should keep us from weeping for it, no rational evidence should keep us from asking that it be reborn. You are slowly dying under the weight of evidence. I wish you that anguish—like a resurrection.”
“To what shall we be born?”
“To a more profound truth. Evidence is a quality of the surface. Your science is the triumph of evidence, a proliferation of the surface. It makes you the masters of the external, but at the same time it exiles you there, more and more.”
There was a moment of silence. Outside, the vesperal drama had come to an end. The sun had set. Behind it, an imposing mass of bright red cloud had come crumbling down like a monstrous stream of clotted blood. The red
splendor of the air had been progressively softened under the impact of the slow invasion of the evening shade.
Strange, Lacroix was thinking, this fascination of nothingness for those who have nothing. Their nothingness—they call it the absolute. They turn their backs to the light, but they look at the shadow fixedly. Is it that this man is not conscious of his poverty?
The knight’s voice broke the silence now, but in a low and meditative tone, as if he were speaking to himself:
“I should like to say to you, nevertheless—” he hesitated.
“What do you wish to say, Monsieur?”
“I should like to tell you that it is myself, ultimately, who have sent my son to your school.”
“It is your turn to make me very happy,” Paul Lacroix said.
“I have sent my son to your school, and I have prayed God to save us all, you and us.”
“He will save us, if He exists.”
“I have sent my son to the school because the external which you have checked was slowly seeping through us and destroying us. Teach him to check the external.”
“We have checked it.”
“The external is aggressive. If man does not conquer it, then it destroys man, and makes him a victim of tragedy. A sore which is neglected does not heal, but becomes infected to the point of gangrene. A child who is not educated goes backward. A society which is not governed destroys itself. The West sets up science against the invading chaos, sets it up like a barricade.”
At this moment Lacroix had to fight against the strong temptation to push the electric light switch which was
within reach of his hand. He would have liked to scrutinize the shadowed face of this motionless man who sat opposite him. In his voice he perceived a tonality which intrigued him, and which he would have liked to relate to the expression of his face. But, No, he thought, if I turn on the light this man may stop talking. It is not to me that he is talking, it is to himself. He listened.
“Every hour that passes brings a supplement of ignition to the crucible in which the world is being fused. We have not had the same past, you and ourselves, but we shall have, strictly, the same future. The era of separate destinies has run its course. In that sense, the end of the world has indeed come for every one of us, because no one can any longer live by the simple carrying out of what he himself is. But from our long and varied ripenings a son will be born to the world: the first son of the earth; the only one, also.”
In the darkness Lacroix felt that the knight was turning slightly toward him.
“M. Lacroix, this future—I accept it,” he said. “My son is the pledge of that. He will contribute to its building. It is my wish that he contribute, not as a stranger come from distant regions, but as an artisan responsible for the destinies of the citadel.”
“He will teach us the secrets of the shade. He will reveal to us the springs at which your youth quenches its thirst.”