Rica to Usbek, at * * *
As I was passing the other
day over the Pont-Neuf with one of my friends, he met a man of his acquaintance,
who, he said, was a geometer; and he looked it, for he was in a deep meditation:
my friend had to tug at his sleeve for a long time and to shake him to
bring him down to himself, he was so much occupied with a curve which had
tormented him perhaps for more than a week. There was a most polite
interchange of compliments, and they imparted to each other some items
of literary news. Their talk continued till we came to the door of
a coffee-house, which I entered with them.
I noticed that our geometer was received by everybody with marked cordiality, and that the coffee-house waiters made much more of him than of two musketeers who were in a corner. As for him, he appeared to be very well pleased with the company; for he unwrinkled his face a little, and fell a-smiling, as if there had not been the least particle of geometry in him.
However, his exact mind measured everything that was said in the conversation. He seemed like a man in a garden, who with a sword cuts off the head of every flower which rises above its neighbours. A martyr to his own accuracy, he was offended by a witty remark, as weak sight is annoyed by too strong a light. Nothing was indifferent to him provided it was true. Thus his conversation was very remarkable. He had come that day from the country with a man who had been to see a fine chateau and splendid gardens; but he himself had only seen a building sixty feet long and thirty-five wide, and a parallelogrammic grove of ten acres: he would have liked very much that the rules of perspective had been so observed that the walks of the avenues might have appeared throughout of the same width; and for that purpose he would have supplied an infallible method. He appeared to be much pleased with a dial which he had discovered there of a very peculiar make; and he became very angry with a learned man, who sat beside me, and unfortunately asked him if this dial indicated the Babylonian hours. A newsmonger spoke of the bombardment of the castle of Fontarabia; and he at once told us the properties of the line which the bombs described in the air; and, delighted with this bit of knowledge, he was quite content to be wholly ignorant of the success of the bombardment. A man complained that in the preceding winter he had been ruined by a flood. "What you say is agreeable to me," said the geometer. "I find that I am not mistaken in the observation which I made, and that there fell upon the earth two inches of water more than in the year before."
A moment after he left, and we followed him. As he walked very fast, and neglected to look before him, he ran full tilt against another man: they struck each other violently; and each rebounded from the collision in proportion to his speed and weight. When they had recovered somewhat from their dizziness, this man, pressing his hand on his forehead, said to the geometer, "I am very glad you ran against me, for I have great news to tell you: I have just published my Horace." "How!" exclaimed the geometer; "it is two thousand years since Horace was published." "You do not understand me," replied the other. "It is a translation of that ancient author which I have given to the world: I have been engaged as a translator for twenty years."
"What, sir!" rejoined the geometer; "have you been twenty years without thinking? You are only the mouthpiece of others." "Sir," replied the savant, "do you not think that I have done the public a great service in making them familiar with good authors?" "I am not so sure of that: I esteem as highly as any one the sublime geniuses whom you have travestied: but you are not as they; for though you translate for ever, you will never be translated.
"Translations are like copper money, which have quite the same value as a gold piece, and are even of greater use among the people; but they are base coin and always light.
"You wish, you say, to revive among us those illustrious dead; and I admit that you give them indeed a body; but you do not give the body life: the animating spirit is always wanting.
"Why do you not engage rather in seeking for some of those glorious truths which a simple calculation discovers for us every day?" After this piece of advice they parted, I imagine not in the best of humour with each other.
Paris, the last day of the second moon of Rebiab, 1719.