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from the December 2009 issue

A Visit from Alcibiades

A Letter from Appeals Court Judge X to the Chief of the Imperial Court Police
The Court, September 20, 1875

Your Excellency must excuse the tremulous handwriting and the rambling style, both of which will soon be better understood.

Today, in late afternoon, after dinner as I awaited the time for the Casino, I stretched out on the sofa and opened a volume of Plutarch. Your Excellency, who were my classmate, will recall that since early days I have suffered from this devotion to things Greek; devotion or mania, which is what Your Excellency termed it, so intense that it was causing me to fail the other disciplines. I opened the volume, and there occurred what always happens when I read something ancient: I am transported to the period and the midst of the action or of the work. After dinner is an excellent time. I quickly find myself on a Roman street, at the foot of a Greek portico, or at the stoa of a grammarian. Modern times disappear, the insurrection in Herzegovina, the Carlist wars, Ouvidor Street, the Chiarini circus. Fifteen or twenty minutes of ancient life, and free of charge. A true literary digestion.

That is what happened today. The open page chanced to be the life of Alcibiades. I let myself drift to Attic eloquence; from there I quickly moved to the Olympic games, admiring the handsomest of the Athenians, magnificently driving the chariot with the same firm hand and gracefulness with which he commanded battles, citizens, and his own feelings. Your Excellency can imagine what I experienced! But then the boy came in to light the gas; that was enough to dissipate all the archaeology of my imagination. Athens returned to history, while my eyes fell from the clouds, that is, to my cotton trousers, my alpaca jacket, my cordovan shoes. And I mused:

"What impression would our modern attire make on the illustrious Athenian?" I have been a spiritist for several months. Convinced that all systems are total nullities, I decided to adopt the most recreative of them. The time will come when this is not merely recreative but also useful for the solution of historical problems; it is simpler to evoke the spirit of the dead than to expend one's critical forces, wasting them in pure futility, for there is no reasoning or document that can better explain to us the intention of an act than the author of the act itself. And such was my case tonight. Conjecturing about Alcibiades's impression was a waste of time, to no profit other than the pleasure of admiring my own skill. I decided, therefore, to call forth the Athenian; I asked him to appear in my house at once, without delay.

And here begins the extraordinary part of the adventure. Alcibiades lost no time in attending to the summons; two minutes later, there he was, in my parlor, near the wall; but this was not the impalpable shade that I expected to have evoked by the methods of our school; it was Alcibiades himself, flesh and blood, a true man, an authentic Greek, in traditional garb, full of the gentility and elegance with which he once addressed the great assemblies in Athens, and also, a little, the mooncalves. Your Excellency, so versed in history, is not unaware that there were also mooncalves in Athens; yes, Athens also had them, and that precedent is an excuse. I swear to Your Excellency that I did not believe; however faithful the testimony of my senses, I could not bring myself to accept that there, in my house, stood not the ghost of Alcibiades but Alcibiades himself, resurrected. I still harbored the hope that it was all nothing more than the effect of incomplete digestion, a simple effluvium of chyle, through the lens of Plutarch; then I rubbed my eyes, stared, and—

"What do you want of me?" he asked.

Upon hearing this, my skin turned to goose flesh. The form spoke, and spoke perfect Attic Greek. It was he, there could be no doubt that it was he himself, a man dead for twenty centuries, restored to life, as fully as if he had just now come from cutting off the famous dog's tail. It was clear that I had unwittingly taken a giant step in the course of spiritism; but, alas! I did not understand this at first and found myself frightened. He repeated the question, looked around, and sat down in an armchair. As I was cold and shivering (and am still so now), he realized this and spoke to me with great affection and attempted to laugh and jest with an end to reconstituting my calm and confidence. As skilled as ever! What more shall I say to Your Excellency? After a few minutes we were conversing in ancient Greek, he at ease and natural, I imploring all the saints in heaven for the presence of a servant, a visitor, a patrol, or, should it come to such, a fire.

Needless to tell Your Excellency that I relinquished the idea of consulting him about modern attire; I had asked for a specter, not a "real" man, as children say. I limited myself to answering what he wanted; he asked for news of Athens, and I provided it. I told him that she was now the capital of a single Greece, I narrated the Moslem domination, independence, Botzaris, Lord Byron. The great man's eyes were focused on my mouth; and, showing surprise that the dead had told him nothing, he explained that at the door to the other world they lost much of their interest in this one. He had seen neither Botzaris nor Lord Byron—in the first place, because there are so many, so very many in the multitude of spirits that they naturally tend to lose themselves; in the second place, because there they congregate, not by nationalities or any other order, but by categories of temperament, custom, and profession. Thus it is that he, Alcibiades, cleaves to the group of elegant, impassioned politicians like the Duke of Buckingham, Garrett, our Maciel Monteiro, etc. He next asked me for current news; I told him what I knew, in summary fashion; I spoke of the Hellenic parliament and the alternating manner in which Bulgaris and Comondouros, statesmen and compatriots of his, emulate Disraeli and Gladstone, taking turns in power, and like them, trading oratorical blows. He, once a magnificent speechmaker, interrupted me:

"Bravo, Athenians!"

If I go into these minutiae, it is in order to omit nothing that might give Your Excellency the exact knowledge of the extraordinary occurrence that I am recounting. I have already said that Alcibiades listened to me avidly; I shall add that he was quick and sagacious; he understood things without the need for a broad expenditure of words. He was also sarcastic; at least so he seemed to me on one or two points of our conversation; but throughout most of it he appeared simple, alert, correct, sensitive, and dignified. And vain, Your Excellency will please note, as vain as in earlier times; he glanced sidelong at the mirror, as do our own and other ladies in this century, looked at his high-lace boots, straightened his mantle, and maintained a certain sculptural demeanor.

"Go on, continue," he told me when I stopped giving him news. But I could go no further. Having entered into the inexplicable, the marvelous, I was finding all things possible, could not fathom any reason that if he came to deal with me, in my time, I would not deal with him in eternity. The thought caused me a chill. For a man who had just digested his dinner and was waiting for the hour of the Casino, death is the ultimate sarcasm.

If I could get away . . . I was encouraged: I told him I was going to a ball.

"A ball? What is a ball?"

I explained.

"Ah! To see the pyrrhic danced!"

"No," I corrected, "the pyrrhic is long gone. Each century, my dear Alcibiades, changes dances as it changes ideas. We no longer dance the same things as the previous century; probably the twentieth century will not dance those of this one. The pyrrhic went away, like the men of Plutarch and the deities of Hesiod."

"Like the deities?"

I repeated that it was so, that paganism had ended, that the schools of poetry of the past century had still sheltered them, though with neither conviction nor soul, that the same Arcadian drunkenness—Evohé! Father Bassareus! Evohé! etc., the honest pastime of certain peaceful lower-court judges—even they were cured, thoroughly cured. From time to time, I added, one or another poet, one or another writer of prose alludes to the remains of pagan theogony but does so as ostentation or in jest, for science has reduced all of Olympus to a symbol.

Dead, everything dead.

"Zeus dead?"


"Dionysus, Aphrodite . . .?"

"All dead."

The man of Plutarch rose, paced a bit, suppressing his indignation, as if telling himself, in imitation of the other, "Ah! Then I too must be there with my Athenians!

"Zeus, Dionysus, Aphrodite . . ." he murmured from time to time. I remembered then that he had once been accused of irreverence toward the gods, and I wondered from whence came that posthumous and naturally artificial indignation. I forgot—I, a devotee of Greek!—forgot that he was also a practiced hypocrite, an illustrious dissembler. And I almost did not have time to make that observation, because Alcibiades, stopping suddenly, declared that he would go to the ball with me.

"To the ball?" I repeated in astonishment.

"To the ball, let us go to the ball."

I was terrified, told him no, that it was impossible, they wouldn't let him in dressed like that; he would look like a madman; unless he wanted to go there to perform some comedy by Aristophanes, I added, laughing to disguise my fear. What I wanted was to leave him there, entrust the house to him, and once in the street, I wouldn't go to the Casino, I would go to speak with Your Excellency. But there was no swaying the devil of a man; he listened to me with his gaze on the floor, pensive, deliberate. I stopped talking; I began to worry that the form would vanish, and that I would be alone with my trousers, my shoes, and my century.

"I want to go to the ball," he repeated. "I shall not go away without comparing the dances."

"My dear Alcibiades, I find such a desire to be imprudent. In all certainty, I should have the supreme honor, a feeling of great pride, in taking to the Casino the most genteel, the most charming of Athenians; but the other men of today, the youths, the young women, the old people . . . It's impossible."


"I have already told you; they will think you're a lunatic or a comic actor. Those clothes . . ."

"What's wrong with them? Clothing changes. I shall go in the apparel of this century. Have you no clothes to lend me?"

I was about to say no; but then it occurred to me that the most urgent thing was to leave, and that once in the street there would be no lack of means for me to escape him, so I told him yes.

"Very well," he replied, rising, "I shall go dressed in the manner of the century. I ask only that you dress first, so I can learn to imitate you afterward."

I too rose and asked him to accompany me. He did not immediately move; he was startled. I saw that only then had he noticed my white trousers; he looked at them, wide-eyed, his mouth open. Finally, he asked why I was wearing those cloth tubes. For greater comfort, I answered; I added that our century, more reserved and practical than artistic, had decided to dress in a manner compatible with its decorum and seriousness. Further, not everyone would be an Alcibiades. I believe that I flattered him thereby; he smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

"Oh well!"

We went to my dressing room and I began to change clothes, quickly. Alcibiades sat down slowly on a divan, not without praising it, not without praising the mirror, the wicker, the paintings . . .I dressed, as I say, quickly, anxious to make my way out to the street and clamber into the first tilbury that came by . . .

"Black tubes!" he exclaimed.

These were the black trousers that I had just put on. He exclaimed and laughed, a cynical laugh in which surprise mingled with mockery, greatly offending my sensitivity as a modern man. Because, Your Excellency will note, although to us our times may seem deserving of criticism, even of execration, we dislike it when an ancient ridicules them to our face. I did not respond to the Athenian; I frowned slightly and went on buttoning my suspenders. He then asked me for what reason I wore such an ugly color . . .

"Ugly but serious," I told him. "Notice, however, the grace of the cut, see how it falls over the shoe, which has a sheen, though black, and is fashioned to perfection." And, seeing that he was nodding:

"My dear man," I told him, "surely you can demand that Jupiter Olympus be the eternal emblem of majesty: he is the domain of ideal art, disinterested, superior to the times that pass and the men who accompany us. But the art of dress is different. That which appears absurd or graceless is perfectly rational and beautiful—beautiful in our way, for we do not take to the streets to hear rhapsodes recite their verses, nor orators their speeches, nor philosophers their philosophies. You yourself, if you become accustomed to the sight, will in the end find us to your liking, because—"

"Wretch!" he bellowed, launching himself upon me.

Before I could understand the cause of his cry and his act, I was left without a drop of blood. The cause was an illusion. As I had run the cravat around my neck and was trying to tie the knot, Alcibiades thought I was going to hang myself, as he later confessed. And, truth be told, I was pale, trembling, in a cold sweat. Now it was I who laughed. I laughed, and explained the use of the cravat, noting that it was white, not black, as we also wore black cravats. Only after all of this was explained to him did he consent to return it to me. I finally knotted it and donned my vest.

"By Aphrodite!" he exclaimed. "You are the most unusual thing I have ever seen in my life or my death. You are the color of night—a night with but three stars," he continued, pointing to my buttons. "The world must have become immensely melancholy, if it has chosen to wear a color so dead and sad. We were happier; we lived—"

He was unable to finish the sentence; I had just put on my frock coat, and the Athenian's consternation defied description. His arms dropped, he was suffocating, could not speak; his eyes, large and open, were fixed on me. Believe me, Your Excellency, I was frightened and attempted to hasten even more my departure.

"Are you done?" he asked me.

"No; there's still the hat."

"Oh! May something come now to compensate the rest!" replied Alcibiades in a supplicant tone. "Come, come. So, all the elegance that we bequeathed to you is reduced to a pair of closed tubes and another pair of open tubes (and he said this lifting the skirt of my frock coat). And all in that monotonous and negative color? No, I cannot believe it! Let something come to compensate that. What did you say is still lacking?"

"The hat."

"Put on what is missing, my dear man, put on what is missing."

I obeyed; I went to the hat rack, removed the hat, and placed it on my head. Alcibiades looked at me, staggered, and fell. I ran to the illustrious Athenian, to lift him to his feet, but (I say this painfully) it was too late; he was dead, dead for the second time. I beg that Your Excellency see fit to issue the requisite orders for removal of the cadaver to the morgue and take measures for the corpus delicti, relieving me of the need to go personally to Your Excellency's home at this hour (ten o'clock at night) in light of the profound shock I have just experienced. However, I shall do so tomorrow morning, before eight o'clock.

Translation copyright 2009 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.

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