TO THE WORM
FIRST GNAWED AT THE COLD FLESH
OF MY CADAVER
AS A FOND REMEMBRANCE
TO THE READER
That Stendhal should have confessed to writing one of his books for only a hundred readers is a source of surprise and consternation. What comes as no surprise, nor will likely provoke any consternation, is if this book fails to garner even Stendhal's hundred readers, nor fifty, nor twenty, nor even ten, if that. Ten? Perhaps five. This is, it's true, a diffuse work, in which I, Brás Cubas, if I have adopted the free form of a Sterne or a Xavier de Maistre, may have added a few grumbles of pessimism. That may well be. The work of a deceased man. I wrote it with the pen of mirth and the ink of melancholy, and it is not difficult to predict what may come of such a union. Add to which the fact that serious people will find in the book some likeness to an out-and-out novel, while frivolous people will not find their usual novel here; it will thus be deprived of the esteem of the serious and the love of the frivolous, which are the two chief pillars of public opinion.
But I still harbor hopes of winning the sympathies of that opinion, and the first remedy is to avoid a drawn-out, exhaustive prologue. The best prologues have the fewest things, or say them in an abrupt, obscure manner. Accordingly, I will refrain from relaying the extraordinary process that I employed in composing these Memoirs
, crafted here in the otherworld. It would be of interest, but tediously lengthy, and superfluous to one's understanding of the work. The work in itself is all: if it should please you, my fine reader, I am paid for my labors; if it should not please you, I will pay you with a flick of a finger, and farewell.
THE DEMISE OF THE AUTHOR
I debated for a time as to whether I ought to open these memoirs at the beginning or at the end—that is, if I would start out with my birth or with my death. Granting that the common practice may be to begin with one's birth, two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that I am not exactly an author recently deceased, but a deceased man recently an author, for whom the tomb was another cradle; the second is that this would make the writing wittier and more novel. Moses, who also recounted his own death, did not put it at the commencement but at the finish: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch.
That being said, I expired at two o'clock in the afternoon on a Friday in the month of August, 1869, at my handsome country home in Catumbi. I had seen some sixty-four robust and prosperous years, I was a bachelor, I had around three hundred thousand milréis to my name, and I was accompanied to the cemetery by eleven friends. Eleven! True, there had been neither letters nor announcements. What's more, it was raining—drizzling—a fine, doleful, steady patter, so steady and so doleful that it led one of those faithful at the last to insert this inspired idea into the speech that he delivered at the edge of my grave:
You who knew him, gentlemen, you may join me in saying that nature herself seems to be weeping for the irreparable loss of one of the finest figures to have ever honored humanity. This gloom, these drops from on high, those dark clouds veiling the blue like a mourning band, all this is the raw, wicked pain tearing nature to the quick; all this is a sublime paean to our illustrious deceased.
Good, faithful friend! No, I don't regret the twenty bonds I left him. And it was thus that I came to the close of my days; it was thus that I set off for Hamlet's undiscovered country, without the young prince's anguish or doubts, but slowly and falteringly, like one leaving the stage far too late. Late and weary. Some nine or ten people saw me go, among them three ladies: my sister Sabina, married to Cotrim; her daughter, a fair lily of the valley; and . . . —A little patience, please! I'll soon tell you who the third lady was. Content yourselves for the moment with the knowledge that this anonymous woman, though no relation of mine, suffered more than those who were. It's true, she suffered more. I won't say that she tore her hair with grief or that she rolled across the floor in convulsions. Nor, for that matter, was there anything terribly dramatic about my death . . . A bachelor breathing his last at age sixty-four is hardly the classic tragedy. And even if it were, the least appropriate thing for this anonymous woman to do would have been to reveal her sentiments. Standing at the head of my bed, her eyes glassy, mouth half-open, this pitiful lady could barely credit my extinction.
"Dead! dead!" she repeated to herself.
And her imagination, like the storks that an illustrious traveler once saw take flight from the Ilissos, bound for the shores of Africa, heedless of the ruins and the ages—the lady's imagination also soared over the wreckage of the present to the shores of a youthful Africa . . . Let her go; we shall go later; we shall go when I restore myself to those early years. For now I want to die peacefully, methodically, hearing the sobbing of the ladies, the low murmuring of the men, the rain drumming on the caladium leaves in the garden, and the piercing sound of a razor being sharpened by a knife grinder, out by the door to a currier's shop. I swear to you all that this orchestra of death was much less sorrowful than it might seem. After a point, it became positively delightful. Life floundered in my chest like the surging of an ocean swell, my consciousness melted away, I was drifting down into physical and moral immobility, my body becoming a plant, a stone, loam, nothing at all.
I died of pneumonia; if I should say that it was less pneumonia than a grand and useful idea that caused my death, my reader may not believe me, and yet this is the truth. I will lay out the case for you in brief. Judge for yourself.
The fact is, one morning when I was out for a walk in the garden, an idea hopped up onto the trapeze in my head. Once hanging there, it began to wave its arms, swing its legs, and perform such daring tumbler's somersaults as one could scarcely believe. I let myself contemplate it. Suddenly, it took a flying leap and stretched out its legs and arms, forming an X: decipher me or I devour thee.
This idea was nothing less than the invention of a sublime remedy, an anti-hypochondriacal plaster destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity. In the patent application that I subsequently drew up, I called the government's attention to this genuinely Christian aim. To my friends, I did not deny the pecuniary advantages that were sure to result from the distribution of a product with such sweeping and profound effects. Now, however, that I am on the other side of life, I can confess it all: what drove me most of all was the gratification it would give me to see in newsprint, showcases, pamphlets, on street corners, and finally on the medicine boxes, those four words: The Brás Cubas Plaster
. Why deny it? I had a weakness for hubbub, banners, pyrotechnics. Modest sorts may reprove this defect in me; I would wager, however, that the clever will grant me this talent. My idea had two faces, like a medal, with one turned toward the public and one toward me. On one side, philanthropy and profit; on the other, a thirst for fame. Let us call it a love of glory.
An uncle of mine, a canon receiving a full prebend, used to say that the love of temporal glory was the ruin of the soul, which ought to covet only the eternal sort. To which another uncle, an officer in one of the old terço
infantry regiments, replied that the love of glory was the most authentically human thing in man, and hence his most genuine feature.
Let the reader decide between the military man and the priest; I will return to the plaster.
But, now that I've spoken of my two uncles, allow me to draw up a brief sketch of my genealogy.
The founder of my family was one Damião Cubas, who flourished in the first half of the eighteenth century. He was a cooper by trade, hailing from Rio de Janeiro, where he would have died in penury and obscurity if he had limited himself to making the cubas
, or barrels, that gave him his name. But no; he became a farmer, planted, reaped, and exchanged his products for a pretty and honest penny until he died, leaving a substantial fortune to a son, Luís Cubas. This young man is truly the start of my forebears—of the forebears that my family would own to—since Damião Cubas was, after all, a cooper, and perhaps even a bad one at that, whereas Luís Cubas studied at Coimbra, became a distinguished statesman, and was a personal friend of the viceroy, Count da Cunha.
Since the name Cubas wafted of cooperage, my father, Damião's great-grandson, alleged that the cognomen had been given to a knight, a hero of the African campaigns, in recognition of a feat in which he captured three hundred barrels from the Moors. My father was a man of great imagination; he escaped from the cooper's shop on the wings of wordplay. He was a good man, my father, worthy and loyal like few others. He had a way of putting on airs, it's true, but who in this world hasn't wrapped himself in an air or two? It may be appropriate to note that he resorted to invention only after having tried out falsification; he had initially grafted himself onto the family of my famous namesake, Captain-Major Brás Cubas, who founded the town of São Vicente and died there in 1592, and it was for that reason that he gave me the name Brás. The family of the captain-major objected, however, and it was then that my father conjured up the three hundred Moorish barrels.
A few members of my family are still alive—my niece Venância, for example, the lily of the valley, the flower of the ladies of her time; and her father, Cotrim, a fellow who . . . well, let's not anticipate events; let's be done with our plaster once and for all.
THE FIXED IDEA
My idea, after all its somersaults, had become a fixed idea. God save you, reader, from a fixed idea; better a mote in your eye, or even a beam. Look at Cavour; it was the fixed idea of Italian unity that killed him. It's true that Bismarck hasn't died; but it should be said that Nature is a fickle maid and History is an inveterate flirt. For example, Suetonius gave us a Claudius who was a simpleton, or a "pumpkinhead," as Seneca called him, and a Titus who was deservedly the delight of Rome. Recently, a professor has come along and found a way to show that of the two Caesars, the truly delightful one was Seneca's "pumpkinhead." And you, Madame Lucrezia, the flower of the Borgias, while a poet painted you as a Catholic Messalina, along came a skeptical Gregorovius to wash away a great deal of that depiction, and while you may not have come out as a lily, neither were you left a swamp. I shall let myself stand somewhere between the poet and the scholar.
Long live history, then, voluble history, which can go every which way; and, returning to fixed ideas, I shall say that they are what make strong men and madmen; wandering, vague, or iridescent ideas make for Claudiuses—in Suetonius's version, that is.
My idea was fixed, as fixed as . . . Nothing comes to mind that is quite so fixed in this world: perhaps the moon, perhaps the pyramids of Egypt, perhaps the late German Diet. The reader may pick the analogy that suits him the best; go on, pick one, and don't get your nose out of joint just because we still haven't arrived at the narrative part of these memoirs. That is where we are headed. I do believe that you prefer anecdotes to meditations, like all the other readers, your comrades, and I believe you do well to prefer them. Well, that is where we are headed. Nevertheless, it should be said that this book is written unhurriedly, at the pace of a man no longer burdened by the brevity of the age; it is a supinely philosophical work, but of an inconstant philosophy, first austere and just as quickly playful, one that neither edifies nor destroys, neither inflames nor chills, and is nevertheless more than a pastime and less than an apostolate.
All right; straighten out your nose, and let us get back to the plaster. We shall leave history, with her elegant lady's whims. None of us ever waged the Battle of Salamis or wrote the Augsburg Confession; for my part, if Cromwell ever comes to mind, it is only to think that His Highness, with the same hand that locked the doors of Parliament, might have forced the Brás Cubas Plaster on the English. Do not laugh at the joint triumph of pharmacy and Puritanism. Who does not know that at the foot of every large, public, prominent flag, there are often a number of other, more modestly proportioned flags, which are hoisted and flutter in the shadow of their larger counterpart, and which quite often survive it? To offer a poor analogy, it is like the rabble, sheltered in the shadow of the feudal castle; the castle fell and the rabble remained. Indeed, they became grand in their own right, a veritable stronghold . . . No, the analogy's really no good.
IN WHICH A LADY BETRAYS HERSELF
And then, just as I was occupied with preparing and perfecting my invention, I was struck squarely by a draft; I fell ill straightaway and took no steps to cure myself. I had the plaster on the brain; I bore within me the fixed idea of the mad and the strong. I beheld myself from afar, rising up from the mob-thronged ground and ascending into the heavens like an immortal eagle, and when faced with such a stupendous spectacle, no man can feel the pain that pricks at him. The following day, I was worse; I finally treated myself, but only partially, with no method, care, or persistence; such was the origin of the ill that brought me to eternity. You already know that I died on a Friday, an unlucky day, and I believe to have proven that it was my invention that killed me. Some demonstrations are less lucid, and no less triumphant for it.
It would not have been impossible for me to step over the threshold of a century and appear in the papers, in the company of other Macrobians. I was healthy and robust. Suppose that, instead of laying the foundations for a pharmaceutical invention, I had been attempting to piece together the elements of a political institution or a religious reform. The breeze would come along all the same, with far greater efficacy than the human faculty of calculation, and all would be done for. Thus goes the lot of men.
With this reflection, I bid farewell to the woman—I won't call her the most discreet, but certainly the loveliest among her contemporaries—the anonymous woman from the first chapter, the very same, whose imagination, like the storks of the Ilissos . . . She was then fifty-four years old, and she was a ruin, an imposing ruin. Just imagine, reader, that we had loved each other, she and I, many years before, and that one day, having taken ill, I see her appear at my bedroom door . . .
CHIMÈNE, QUI L'EÛT DIT? RODRIGUE, QUI L'EÛT CRU?
I see her appear at my bedroom door, pale, shaken, all in black, and pause there for a minute, without the heart to enter, or stayed there by the presence of a man who was with me. From the bed where I lay, I contemplated her for that span of time, forgetting that I said nothing, nor made any sign to her. It had been two years since we had seen each other last, and I saw her now not as she was but as she had been, as we both had been, for some mysterious Hezekiah had turned back the sun to our youthful days. The sun turned back, I shook off all my miseries, and this handful of dust, which death was ready to scatter to the eternity of nothingness, triumphed over time, which is the minister of death. Here, no Hebe's cup could rival simple nostalgia.
Believe me, remembrance is the lesser evil; let none place their faith in present happiness; there's a bitter drop of Cain's drool in it. Once time has worn on and the rapture has ceased, then, perhaps only then, may one truly take pleasure in what has passed; when given a choice between two illusions, the better is that which may be enjoyed without pain.
The vision didn't last long; reality soon asserted itself; the present cast out the past. Perhaps I'll expound to the reader, in some corner of this book, my theory of human editions. What should be imparted now is that Virgília—her name was Virgília—entered the bedroom, steadfast, with the gravity lent her by her clothes and her years, and came over to my bed. The stranger got up and left. He was a fellow who visited me every day to speak about rates of exchange, colonization, and the need to develop the railways: nothing more enthralling for a dying man. He left; Virgília stood there; for some time we gazed at each other without uttering a word. Whoever would have thought it? Two great lovers, two unbridled passions, and nothing was left twenty years later; only two withered hearts, devastated by life and sated of it, whether in equal measure I can't say, but sated all the same. Virgília now possessed the beauty of old age, an austere and maternal air; she was less slender than when I had seen her last, in Tijuca, at a celebration for the Feast of St. John; and because she was one of those who hold out to the last, her dark hair was only just beginning to yield to a few silver strands.
"Visiting dead men, are you?" I said to her.
"Dead men, come now!" replied Virgília with a tut. And then, after giving my hands a squeeze: "I'm putting slugabeds out on the street."
The tearful caresses of yesteryear were gone, but her voice was friendly and sweet. She sat down. I was alone, at home, with only a sick nurse; we could speak to each other without danger. Virgília gave me a drawn-out report of the latest goings-on, narrating them charmingly and seasoning them with a tart dash of gossip; I, on the verge of leaving the world, felt a devilish pleasure in jeering at it, persuading myself that I left nothing behind.
"What ideas you've got in your head!" Virgília interrupted, rather put out. "I won't come back at this rate. Die! All of us must die; that's what comes of being alive."
And, looking at the clock:
"Goodness! It's three. I must go."
"Yes; I'll come by tomorrow or after."
"That may not be wise," I retorted. "The invalid is a bachelor, and there are no ladies living in the house . . ."
"What about your sister?"
"She'll come by to spend a few days, but not before Saturday."
Virgília reflected for a moment, shrugged, and said gravely:
"I've grown old! No one takes any notice of me anymore. But to leave no room for suspicion, I'll come with Nhonhô."
Nhonhô was a university graduate, the only child of her marriage, who, at the age of five, had been an unconscious accomplice to our love affair. They came together two days later, and I must confess that seeing them there in my bedroom I was taken by a bashfulness that kept me from immediately repaying the young man's kind words. Virgília guessed me out and said to her son:
"Nhonhô, pay no mind to this sly old fox here; he's not talking so he can make you believe he's at death's door."
Her son smiled. I believe I smiled as well, and it all ended in pure fun. Virgília was calm and cheerful, with the air of one who had led an immaculate life. No suspicious gaze, no gesture that might betray a thing; she displayed an equanimity of word and spirit and a mastery of herself that struck me as unusual, and perhaps were. When we touched, innocently enough, on the subject of an illicit love affair that was somewhere between secret and public, I saw her speak with disdain and a bit of indignation of the woman in question, who happened to be a friend of hers. Her son felt satisfied, hearing those dignified and forceful words, while I wondered to myself what the sparrowhawks might say of us, if Buffon had been born a sparrowhawk . . .
My delirium was beginning.
As far as I am aware, no one has ever narrated his own delirium; I shall do so now, and science will thank me for it. If you, my reader, should not be given to the contemplation of such mental phenomena, you may skip the chapter; go straight to the narration. But, incurious as you may be, I can certainly say that it is interesting to know what went on in my head during some twenty or thirty minutes.
First of all, I took on the figure of a Chinese barber, pot-bellied and nimble-fingered, giving a close shave to a mandarin, who paid me for my trouble with pinches and candies: such are the whims of a mandarin.
Shortly thereafter, I felt myself transformed into St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica
, a volume bound in Moroccan leather, with silver clasps and illustrations; this idea impressed upon my body the most complete immobility; and I still remember that my hands were the clasps of the book, I had crossed them over my stomach, and someone uncrossed them (Virgília, undoubtedly) because the position made me look like a corpse.
Finally, restored to human form, I saw a hippopotamus come up and carry me off. I let myself go, fallen quiet, whether out of fear or trust I cannot say; but presently the gallop became so headlong that I dared to speak, and tactfully remarked that we seemed to be bound for nowhere in particular.
"You're mistaken," replied the animal. "We are going to the origin of the ages."
I hinted that it must be terribly far off; but the hippopotamus either did not understand me or did not hear me, or perhaps feigned one or the other; and when I asked it, seeing that it could speak, whether it was descended from Achilles' horse or Balaam's ass, it retorted with a gesture peculiar to those two sorts of quadrupeds: it twitched its ears. For my part, I closed my eyes and let myself go where chance would take me. Now I have no compunctions about confessing that I felt a tickling of curiosity to know where the origin of the ages lay, if it was as mysterious as the origin of the Nile, and principally if it was more or less worth my while than the consummation of those selfsame ages: all these, the reflections of a sick brain. As I kept my eyes closed, I saw nothing of the route; I can recall only that the cold grew keener as the journey proceeded, and that after a time it seemed to me that we were entering the region of eternal ice. Indeed, I opened my eyes and saw that my animal was galloping across a plain white with snow, with a few snow mountains, snow vegetation, and a number of large snow animals. All
snow; we were even chilled by the rays of a snowy sun. I tried to speak, but could only grunt out the following question:
"Where are we?"
"We've already passed Eden."
"All right, then, let's stop at Abraham's tent."
"And turn around?" scoffed my steed by way of an answer.
This was both vexing and confounding. The journey came to strike me as tiresome and outlandish, the cold disagreeable, the means of transport jolting, and the result far from clear. And—a sick man's musings—even if we should arrive at the destination in question, mightn't the ages, irritated at having their origin so exposed, crush me between their equally age-old nails? As these thoughts passed through my mind, we swallowed up the ground and the plain flew past beneath our feet, until the animal came to a halt and I could look around me more calmly. Look, that was all; I saw nothing but the vast whiteness that had now overtaken even the sky itself, which had been blue until then. Here and there was to be seen an enormous, brutish plant, wagging its long leaves in the wind. The silence of that place was like that of the tomb: one might have said that the life in things had fallen stunned in the presence of man.
Did it fall from the sky? Did it rise from the earth? I do not know; I know only that an immense shape, the figure of a woman, appeared to me then, fixing me with eyes as brilliant as the sun. Everything about the figure bore the vastness of the wilds and surpassed the comprehension of the human gaze, as its edges bled away into its surroundings and that which appeared dense was often diaphanous. Stupefied, I said nothing, not even crying out; but after a time, which was brief enough, I asked who she was and what she was called: such was the curiosity born of delirium.
"Call me Nature or Pandora; I am your mother and your enemy."
Upon hearing this last word, I drew back, gripped with fear. The figure let out a peal of laughter, which had the effect of a typhoon around us; the plants writhed and a long moan broke through the hush of the surroundings.
"Do not be frightened," said she, "my enmity does not kill; it affirms itself through life. You are alive: I desire no other torment."
"I'm alive?" I asked, digging my nails into my palms as if to certify myself of my existence.
"Yes, worm, you are alive. You must not fear losing the tattered rags that are your pride; for a few hours yet you shall still taste the bread of pain and the wine of misery. You are alive: now, even in your madness, you are alive; and should your mind retrieve an instant of sense, you will say that you wish to live."
Thus saying, the vision extended an arm, seized me by the hair and lifted me up as if I were a feather. Only then could I behold her face, which was immense. Nothing could be stiller; no violent grimace, no expression of hate or ferocity; its sole expression, general and all-pervasive, was that of a selfish impassivity, an everlasting deafness, an immovable will. Wrath, if she had any, was locked away in her heart. At the same time, in that face, with its glacial expression, there was an air of youth, a mixture of strength and vigor before which I felt myself the feeblest and most decrepit of all beings.
"Do you understand me?" she said after a time of mutual contemplation.
"No," I answered, "nor do I wish to understand you; you're absurd, you're a fable. I'm dreaming, surely, or, if it should be true that I've gone mad, you're nothing more than a lunatic's fancy, a vain thing that an absent mind can neither govern nor touch. You, Nature? The Nature I know is only a mother, no enemy; she does not make life a torment, nor is her face as indifferent as the tomb. And why Pandora?"
"Because I carry in my bag all good and evil, and the greatest thing of all, hope, the comfort of men. Do you tremble?"
"Yes; your gaze is mesmerizing."
"Indeed; for I am not only life, I am also death, and you are about to return what I have lent you. For you, great hedonist, there await all the sensual pleasures of nothingness."
As that last word rolled like a thunderclap across the immense valley, it struck me that this was the last sound that would ever reach my ears; I seemed to feel myself suddenly disintegrating. I faced her with a pleading gaze and asked for a few more years.
"Wretched minute!" she exclaimed. "Why would you want a few more moments of life? To devour and then be devoured? Have you not tired of the spectacle, of the struggle? You have had your fill of all of the least vile and least grievous things I have to offer: the breaking of day, the melancholy of dusk, the quiet of night, the face of the earth, and, last of all, sleep, the greatest benefit my hands can bestow. What more can you want, sublime idiot?"
"Just to live. I ask nothing more. Who but you put this love of life in my heart? And if I love life, why must you do yourself injury by killing me?"
"Because I have no more need of you. Time cares not for the passing minute, only that which is to come. The minute ahead is strong, merry, believes it is the bearer of eternity, and it, too, bears death and perishes like the one before it—but time remains. Selfishness, you say? Yes, selfishness, I know no other law. Selfishness, preservation. A jaguar kills a calf because the jaguar reasons that she must live, and if the calf's flesh is tender, so much the better: this is the statute that governs the universe. Come up and see."
So saying, she swept me up and bore me to the top of a mountain. I turned my eyes down one of its slopes and contemplated at length, far off and through a mist, an incomparable thing. Imagine, reader, all the ages of time in miniature, and in an unending procession; all the races, all the passions, the tumult of empires, the war of appetite against appetite and hatred against hatred, the reciprocal destruction of beings and things. Such was the spectacle, a cruel and curious one. The history of man and the earth was of an intensity of which neither imagination nor science could conceive, for science is too slow and imagination too vague, and what I beheld then was the living condensation of all time. To describe it, one would have to make the lightning stand still. The ages marched along in a whirlwind, and, nevertheless, as delirium lends one different eyes, I could see everything that passed before me, torments and delights, from that thing called glory to that other thing called misery, and I saw love multiplying misery, and misery aggravating weakness. There came all-consuming greed, maddening wrath, slavering envy, the hoe and the pen, both damp with sweat, and ambition, hunger, vanity, melancholy, riches, love, and they all shook man like a rattle until they destroyed him like a rag. These were the various forms of a single ailment, which would gnaw at the entrails at times and the mind at others, all the while parading its harlequin's garb around the human species. Pain gave way here and there, but only to indifference, which was a dreamless sleep, or to pleasure, which was a bastard pain. And then man, tormented and unyielding, would run ahead of the fatality of things after a nebulous, elusive figure cobbled together out of scraps, a scrap of the intangible, another of the improbable, another of the invisible, all sewn with flimsy stitches by the needle of the imagination; and this figure—nothing less than the chimera of happiness—either fled constantly or allowed itself to be caught by its train, upon which man would clasp it to his breast, and then the figure would give a scornful laugh and vanish like an illusion.
Upon contemplating this calamity, I could not stifle a cry of anguish, which Nature or Pandora heard with neither protest nor laughter; and, driven by some principle of cerebral disturbances, it was I who then set to laughing—a braying, idiotic laugh.
"You're right," I said, "this all is amusing, and worth the while—monotonous, perhaps, but worth the while. When Job cursed the day he was conceived, it was only because he wanted to watch the spectacle from up here. Let's go, Pandora, open up your maw and digest me; this all is amusing, but be done with it and digest me."
Her response was to force me to look downward and watch the swift and turbulent ages as they kept on passing by, generations overtaking generations, some sorrowful, like the Hebrews in captivity, others joyful, like the libertines under Commodus, and all arriving punctually at the grave. I wanted to flee, but a mysterious force held my feet; and so I said to myself: "Well, if the centuries are passing by, mine will arrive, and it will pass as well, and then the last of all will give me the key to the riddle of eternity." And I fixed my gaze and continued to watch the ages as they came and went; now I was tranquil and resolute, if not even happy. Perhaps even happy. Each age bore its portion of shadow and light, of apathy and combat, of truth and error, with their processions of systems, new ideas, and new illusions; in each of them there burst forth the green of spring, which would yellow, only to bloom again. While life obeyed the regularity of a calendar, history and civilization were made, and man, naked and unarmed, armed and dressed himself, built huts and palaces, humble villages and Thebes of the hundred gates, created science, which scrutinizes, and art, which enraptures, became an orator, a mechanical, a philosopher, girdling the globe, descending to the bowels of the earth, and rising to the sphere of the clouds, thus contributing to the mysterious work with which he staved off the needs of life and the melancholy of abandonment. My eyes, wearied and distracted, at last beheld the present age, and the ages to come behind it. As it came, the former was agile, cunning, vibrant, and self-assured, a bit scattered, bold and learned, but in the end as miserable as the first, and so it passed like all the rest, with the same swiftness and like monotony. I redoubled my attention; I fixed my gaze; I would finally see the end—the end! But by then the speed of the procession was such that it escaped all comprehension; compared to it, a lightning bolt would last a century. Perhaps that was why things set to changing; some grew, others dwindled, others vanished into the air; a fog covered everything—except the hippopotamus that had brought me, and that, for that matter, began to shrink, shrink, and shrink, until it was the size of a cat. It was, in fact, a cat. I looked at it more closely; it was my cat Sultan, playing with a ball of paper by my bedroom door . . .
This excerpt ends on page 21 of the paperback edition of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas.