The Love of Plato (Excerpts)
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Translated by: James Wilper
Artwork by Anonymous
This morning I received the following note:
I love you with that pure, spiritual love that is your highest ideal, your most sacred longing.
If your soul needs a like-minded friend, a companion, then come to me.
A carriage will await you before midnight at the foot of the escarpment. The password is: Anatol.
The handwriting was masculine, but the large, free strokes had that roundedness that I love so much because it bespeaks a certain harmony of the various human strengths and characteristics.
Who is Anatol? Could he be Nadezhda’s brother?
In any case, I will go there. […]
The 28th of January
I was at the meeting place long before midnight, and the carriage was there too. An old servant approached me with his hat in his hand.
‘Anatol’, I said impetuously.
He nodded and helped me into the carriage. We drove very quickly, the houses darted past, I no longer took pains to recognize the streets, but rather settled silently into the corner. The way seemed long to me, perhaps only because I was so anxious and excited. Finally the carriage halted in a gateway. The old man opened the door of the coupe and then led me up a wide, carpeted stair that was decorated with flowers.
Passing through a broad corridor, in whose niches stood plaster casts of Greek and Italian sculptures, we reached a dimly lit antechamber and then entered a room that was completely dark. The old servant held my hand, and I followed him step by step.
He led me to a divan, upon which, at his invitation, I sat down; then he suddenly disappeared.
I do not know how long I sat there, certainly not too long, but I was in such high spirits that to me every second seemed an eternity.
The clock struck twelve, and with the last stroke of midnight—I thought that I was still alone—a clear, wonderful voice spoke beside me: ‘Greetings, Plato.’
‘Is it you?’ I exclaimed surprised.
‘Whom are you seeking?’ answered the voice.
‘I am Anatol.’
As I began to move, the voice spoke: ‘Remain where you are, do not come any nearer. I want only to speak with you, to listen to you, nothing physical, nothing sensual should interfere with the meeting of our minds.’
And this voice was known to me, but from where?
I remained silent and reflected upon the voice.
‘What is the matter, why are you not speaking to me?’ it asked. This time it was as if the sound wafted in the air over me, as if this sound were animate and played about me like a butterfly.
‘Is not the voice also something sensual?’ I said.
‘Sadly we have not yet sloughed off the physical,’ was the ghostly reply, ‘but it is still the most spiritual medium for the coming together of two beings, for it itself does not touch us, only through the sound waves which it agitates in the air, and, thus, it is as if the soul were communicating with it.’
‘Indeed, the soul communicates with it,’ I replied, ‘I could love your voice alone, it is so pure, so light, it floats in the air like the high chime of a bell or the song of a bird, whilst reclining in the green grove, amongst flowers and grasses, and listening to the very breaths of nature.’
The voice did not answer this time.
‘Will I see you,’ I began anew.
‘I have made a strange discovery,’ I said after some time.
‘What is it?’ it answered, but this time as if from such a wide, unendingly wide distance that I was startled.
‘Where are you?’ I said, my entire body quaking.
‘Here with you,’ it spoke so closely to me and so gently, so wonderfully peacefully. The lovely spook began to excite me, to ensnare me in an invisible net.
‘What is the discovery that you have made?’ it asked.
‘Quite a strange one.’
‘The physical often interferes in our purest moods, our best sensations, our most sacred deeds, I have cursed it often enough, and here, in its absence, I long for it, I long to see you. Is that not strange?’
The voice remained silent.
‘The soul too has eyes,’ I spoke, ‘and I see you with the eyes of my soul.’
‘And how do I look to you?’ the voice asked suddenly.
‘Your form is tender and slim, your head is noble although its proportions are not regular, your hair is abundant and blond, and, despite the darkness of the night, the light of your blue eyes illumines my heart.’
A deep silence followed.
‘Do I see you as you truly are?’ I then asked.
‘I do not know,’ it answered, somewhat tauntingly, it seemed to me, for a golden, childlike laugh rang in the voice.
‘Go now,’ it said after some time, ‘the way you came.’
‘When will I speak with you again?’
‘I do not know yet.’
‘Oh, please tell me,’ I pleaded.
‘Farewell,’ it whispered suddenly from a great distance, then I heard something like a soft rustling, it slowly became less distinct, then everything was still. A hand grasped mine ...
It was the old servant, who led me back along the same way by which I had come.
This time the carriage stopped before my lodgings, and I am there now, lost in reverie, and how this voice haunts me, the way that an image haunts us, this voice that floats like the ring of a bell, like a wonder in the air.
Will I hear it again?
I could die of longing for this voice.
The 12th [of February]
Tonight, the voice asks me: ‘What is the matter? Are you ill?’
‘Yes, I am ill,’ I responded, ‘of longing to see you.’
I received no answer, but a weak, bluish ray of light fell from above in the chamber and grew and little by little filled the entire room with sweet, magical half-darkness. I found myself in a large hall, and about ten paces from me lay a dark figure outstretched on a divan; the blue light fell on an enchantingly beautiful human face.
‘Remain where you are.’
I beheld my mysterious friend with profound amazement. So lovely was his build, such an eerily delightful countenance in the blue light, and the features of this countenance were known to me ...
Suddenly it struck me, the similarity with the Princess ... indeed, these are her features ... and yet completely different ... Could this really be her brother?
Anatol wore high boots, a wide, pleated suit of black cloth in the Russian cut, his hair is blond ... and he is so beautiful, but it cannot compare with the beauty of his soul.
The 11th of May
Has Anatol lied to me, or have I lied to myself? Has all of this emerged gradually, or have I simply not noticed it earlier? In the same way that in a beloved book, for example in Werther, I discover with every reading new and ever-new beauty, I uncover daily in my poor friend new ugliness, and yet his eyes, so beautiful and blue, mirror his entire soul.
The 21st of May
Since extracting myself from Anatol’s company, I have become closer with Schuster, good, dear Schuster with his terribly honest name.
‘You are in love, and not happily,’ he said suddenly to me yesterday.
I was so surprised that at first I was at a loss for words. […]
You ask in your last letter whither my relationship with Anatol is leading. I myself do not know that yet. I am thoroughly disappointed ... I mean in spiritual relations, but I see that ... that he loves me, and I feel pity for him.
And it is not pity alone, his being, his atmosphere has become necessary to me.
Whither is it leading?
I feel myself to be too good to abandon myself to him for a tryst, and he is not good enough for me to establish a lasting bond. No, not good enough is an ill expression for it, too insignificant, too commonplace, too sensual, yes, too sensual ... too much on the surface of things.
The 24th of May
What an immortal Hamlet man is. How beautifully I philosophized in my last letter, and how wretched I am now left with my deeds. I fear that I was, at this moment when the spiritual ties between us were severed, caught in other magical snares.
Tonight—I am nearly ashamed of myself to recount it to you—I cannot explain it to myself, but ever since my spiritual love for Anatol grew cold, I find him so beautiful, so ... to come right out with it ... beguiling.
Beauty of the body is really something when it is accompanied by beauty of the soul. He is a creation endowed with such rich gifts, is not his upbringing at fault? Would it not be possible to improve this brilliant being?
But I am philosophizing again.
And so tonight ... Oh! I am a little confused today. I have got news.
I had as yet always seen Anatol only in his black Russian suit, whose wide pleats only allowed one to guess at his figure. Tonight he appeared for the first time in a slim suit of violet velvet, the color that I so love, and, with his long, blond locks, looked like a puckish page out of the time of Louis XIV, and, as he approached me, the velvet, clinging closely to his lovely form, rustled and cracked with every movement in the waist ... there I realized for the first time in my life that force of nature which no living being can elude entirely and forever.
I felt the mysterious power of sensual beauty.
In order to conceal my excitement, I reached automatically for a book that was tucked between the cushions of the divan.
Anatol noticed it, fell with a cry into my arms, and tried to pry the book from my hands.
We wrestled for a moment, and I felt a tender, nearly virginal chest heave against mine ... the blood rushed to my head ... but I had the book and looked into it in order to rescue myself.
Anatol had thrown himself onto the divan and buried his face in his hands with shame, and, as I silently read the Sorrows of Young Werther, he peered, half through his fingers, impishly at me.
And I ... I lay at that moment at his feet and covered his hand with kisses, I glowed, I trembled ... there I saw triumph flash in those proud blue eyes.
That brought me back to myself.
I stood up and sat down at the piano.
The 25th of May
I do not know how I can begin to tell you what has happened. Perhaps, in your eyes, it is insignificant and yet, for my happiness, so ruinous, so decisive for my entire life.
I only beg of you one thing, do not judge me before you have heard everything.
An abyss, which nothing will be able to bridge, lies between yesterday and today.
As I climbed the steps this night, passed through the corridor that still separated me from Anatol, my heart was pounding, and I felt again with such certainty how fond I still am of him, how the entire strangeness, poeticism, purity of our meetings, this atmosphere of flowers’ scent and moonlight has become nearly indispensable to me.
‘Anatol has his shadow,’ I told myself, ‘but you have yours as well, therefore we will never part, never.’
I was in such a generous mood, so full of reconciliation in my heart, this night I forgave everything, I forgave God this world, Klopstock his ‘Messiah’, and Richard Wagner his theory of opera.
In this mood I entered the hall, which was completely dark ... no, not completely. A shimmer of light fell in through a red curtain, which concealed the door into the next room, the curtain seemed itself to be glowing.
‘Anatol!’ I called. No answer.
‘Anatol!’ ... I was gripped by a nameless fear that I would lose him, a premonition that I would never see him again, but then I heard his silvery laugh behind the curtain.
I came to myself suddenly, as two feminine arms enveloped me and two full lips burned against mine.
The Princess hung around my neck, completely hysterical and in a cloud of white lace, her beautiful, blond hair cascading down over her back.
My entire body quaked with rapture and with rage ... now, with this woman, so full of desire, resting against my chest, now that I felt I could love this woman, that she could bring all of my senses into turmoil, now I saw at the same time that she had played a frivolous game with me, and I tore myself away.
‘So, it was a trap,’ I exclaimed, ‘a masked prank, and you thought that the moment had arrived to spring the trap, but you have miscalculated, Princess, Anatol’s friend is not the man to be a slave to a woman.’
‘Henryk, are you out of your senses!’ the Princess exclaimed, ‘I love you, I want to be yours, yours entirely, yours alone.’
‘Oh, indeed!’ I replied, ‘I believe you, mad Plato offers diversion, why not? But, to make me your lover, was it necessary to rob me of my most sacred thoughts, my best sentiments? My God, I am young and in love with you, from head to toe in love with you, if you want to hear it, I would have courted you if you had played the coquette with me, but that you engineered this farce, that I will never forgive you, and only that, that alone is the cause of the break between us ...’
‘Henryk ... for God’s sake!’ she cried.
I wanted to depart, but she held me tight, and when I pulled her off of me, she threw herself onto the threshold.
‘You will have to go over me,’ she exclaimed, ‘tread me underfoot if you want.’
‘Whom are you imitating in this scene?’ I asked coldly, ‘Madame Ristori or Lucile Grahn?’
‘Henryk, how can you ... the ... Oh! You are an ingrate,’ the princess stammered, ‘but tell me one thing only, what has actually happened? Nothing ... absolutely nothing ... you impudent Plato,’ and still lying before me on her knees, she broke out into a bright laugh.
‘Laugh with me ...’
‘Nothing has happened, Nadezhda,’ I replied sadly, ‘nothing and everything. I see now that you were always a woman, a blasé woman who wanted to satisfy a whim with me, who wanted to enforce her self-will, a woman who lay like a spider in a web and struck too early ... too early ... et c’est le malheur, Princesse, pour moi et pour Vous ... Je vois à présent que Vous restez toujours femme ... but I cannot love a woman, an ordinary woman.’
‘Only tell me what has happened,’ Nadezhda exclaimed, ‘nothing other than that I once, one time alone, dressed in women’s clothing. I can take it off again too, indeed right away if you wish, should I? Yes, I want to be your Anatol again, forever your Anatol, whom you love, who adores you ...’
‘No,’ I retorted bitterly, ‘Anatol was a figment of the night, smoke and mirrors, that dissolves in the light of day and today forever; that you are not.’
‘Henryk,’ Nadezhda said, rising, ‘can you not love the woman in me?’
‘Am I not beautiful?’
‘Oh! You are beautiful,’ I said, regarding her with painful admiration, ‘and how beautiful you are! But beauty of the soul, which is far more than this beauty upon which worms will one day feed, you do not have, you do not have the kind of spirit which can follow mine, you do not have the heart to feel with me, and above all you have no seriousness ... you are frivolous ...’
‘I, my friend ... but ...’ her face glowed red, she shrugged her shoulders and smiled half pityingly, half abashed.
‘And you are not honest ...’
‘Feel free to insult me, offend me,’ she spoke, hereafter she was proud and calm, ‘after all, I am only a woman.’
‘Forgive me ...’ I bowed and took a few steps towards the door.
‘Stay,’ she spoke firmly, almost commandingly, ‘we are not yet finished.’
‘On the contrary.’
‘I want to know what I have done that warrants this ...’ she said, her brow furrowed. She seemed calm, but her nostrils flared.
‘What you have done?’ I retorted, ‘you have robbed me of my ideal. You will laugh, you will tell me: “Ideal! I rid myself of ideals long ago, indeed, I do not know whether I ever had any, and I am happy nevertheless ...” But I was happy with my ideals, with the illusion that there could be a woman who would be able to love me spiritually and bear to be loved only spiritually by me in return. You embodied for me this ideal, played this woman, only to disappoint me all the more cruelly. You were not satisfied with the pure, sacred feelings that I had for you, the vanity of the woman took offence at the thought that it could not charm, could not intoxicate, could not render me senseless and ensnare me ...’
‘You are cruel, Henryk,’ Nadezhda exclaimed, turning away from me, ‘you with your idealism ... Don’t you see then, don’t you want to see that I love you and how I love you?’ She began to sob loudly and threw herself into the cushions of the divan.
My strength was at an end, for a moment I wanted to yield to a demoniacal urge to throw myself at her feet ... I took two steps towards her ... but I composed myself again and left the hall in haste. Outside this desire seized me with an ache, an intensity that threatened to become my master.
I already wanted to turn around, but I went nevertheless.
A cry ... she called my name ... then there was silence.
When I returned the letters to Countess Tarnow, she immediately asked with great liveliness for my opinion.
‘I find that Henryk was quite immoderate,’ I said, ‘to leave someone whom he so loved for the sake of a woman skirt, in short, a proper Plato.’
‘And yet he was in the right,’ the Countess responded.
‘Six years later in Baden-Baden, he met the Princess who was then a widow—he was no longer an officer at that time—she fell upon his neck on the promenade, and, a few hours later in her boudoir, he lay at her feet. She became his wife and now ... now you see barely a year has passed and they are separated.’
‘That is truly odd.’
‘I find it all too common,’ the Countess said, ‘she had an admirer ...’
‘He is now with his friend Schuster, who purchased land in Hungary. On his estate, there stand two small, one-storied houses opposite one another; they live there in communion with nature and in their studies. Two Diogeneses! Each in his barrel, only that their barrels are quite comfortably furnished.’