Tuesday, 2 August 2011

from The Diary of William N. [1]


by Kristina Carlson

26.11.1898  Solitude is not dispiriting or sad, but it is sometimes boring, and I conclude that this is due to the company in which I am alone.

27.11.1898  Today a pharmacist, D. (there have been many pharmacists in the circle of my acquaintances!), invited me to dinner at his home on Sunday.  I went with some reluctance, as the D.’s  live in a street off the Avenue de Messina where I had to travel by omnibus, and what was more,  Dr. D. did not belong to the same botanically cultured group as, for example, the pharmacist Dr. R., who at one time did much to help me (my relations with him have broken) – Dr. D. is just an ordinary, successful, wealthy pill-pusher. I accepted the invitation none the less, because he assured me that there would be no other guests apart from myself, and that his family had an excellent cook. The dinner was indeed first-rate: Potage velouté aux champignons, Filets de poisson en soufflé, Bifteck sauté béarnaise, Pommes normande en belle vue, vegetables, cheeses, and so on, and good wines. When we rose from the dinner table I had to pay for my meal with  some culture! The children’s nanny and Madame D. led into the drawing-room two little girls with curly hair adorned with bow-ribbons, whom they planted in front of the grand piano to play duets, and after the first piece I applauded, but when they began to play a third I began to fret and wondered when it was going to be the little girls’ bedtime, which fortunately arrived at the end of the fourth. I do not know what error led the D.’s to imagine that I was a lover of music, but luckily I managed to catch the omnibus.

28.11.1898  People who live in the flatness of the everyday do not think about their own condition, they are well-to-do and satisfied, for they have delicious dishes and good wines on their tables, they have shiny carriages and sleek horses, servants who bow to them, and they live without care, for it never even occurs to them that everything could be different – instead, their happiness is ensured by at one-dimensional view of the world. Perhaps they browse through newspapers and novels, attend the theatre or concerts and look at works of art, but this dilettantism has a uniform surface, and their minds are not touched by art. They have a certainty about the essence of the world that is based on an assumption, one that they do not call into question by looking through a microscope or telescope. They are pitiful, but they are "happy", so what is there in them to pity? I thought  that even on a flat surface a crack or roughness would appear, but with these self-satisfied people that does not happen. While I do not begrudge them their wealth and their self-satisfaction,  I would never dream of exchanging my narrow room for the cardboard theatre of their world.  

30.11.1898   I too have received awards! The French Academy’s Prix ​​Desmazières, an honorary doctorate, honorary membership of the Fauna & Flora, what else, by giving those awards they salved their bad consciences, but did I receive assistance when it was most needed, for the writing and printing of the Synopsis, for example? Had I jumped off the bridge in 1857 my great work would have remained unpublished. My only support was  Dr. J. B. Mougenot, who lived in the Vosges, and though I have never wanted to be financially dependent on anyone, I agreed to accept money from him, as it was a loan and not a gift, and a loan that I paid back conscientiously. Mougenot, said that precisely because of all the difficulties the Synopsis would become dear to me, and in that he was right, though my joy in completing the work did not last long, for the second part was still waiting to be written and published, a process that took many more years. I did not take seriously Mougenot’s instructions about the life of society, for he exhorted me to be polite and conciliatory in my behaviour, and said  in his letter that "Truth and the conviction to defend the right opinion give one strength, but one must strike with caution." How does one "strike with caution"? With the butt of an axe? I was sorry when M. passed away a few weeks later, after I had taken up my post in Helsinki in the autumn of 1858.

1. 12.1898  Awards, awards, indeed! Perhaps they will even put up a gravestone for me,  though at Helsinki University they ridiculed my clothes (I did not dress according to their idiotic dress code , not even at meetings of the Senate), and my meagre sandwich lunches, because even my students ate better than their professor, and it was told as an amusing story how I hammered and chiselled the dry pieces of bread, when hunger overtook me  and the students on a specimen-gathering trip and nothing else edible could be found. at the peasant cottage. One of the students broke a tooth, but when the pieces of bread had been soaked in spring water for a little while, they were fit to eat.  In their heart of hearts the university people had no respect for me, of course I know that, that is precisely why I was not given von Nordman’s apartment, because among them there were still those with whom I had quarrelled as a younger man, when in Fauna & Flora I  opposed von Nordman’s plan to send a biological expedition to the White Sea, yet it was  my duty as the Society’s vice-chairman to oppose it, because the White Sea was not part of the region we studied, and the expedition was against the Society’s rules.  Nordman and his assistants would have  liked the Society’s  2000 roubles for himself! When Nordman resigned from the Society he was followed by Mannerheim, Nordenskiold, Ilmoni, Bonsdorff, Mäklin and Wright, but was that my fault, or was it the fault of the Society’s rules?

2.12.1898   In the mid-1860s Admiral Jones, who lived in Dublin, sent me 500 francs when he heard that I had resigned my professorship, but later I never heard anything more from him. The German F. Arnold sent me 100 francs, but I returned that money and wrote "timeo Danaos”, because Arnold is a Schwendenerist, and my opinion is not for sale. Monsieur M. sent me some lichen specimens wrapped in hundred franc notes! I suppose he was quietly trying to help, but I returned the money and later only accepted a fee, which I had earned by my study of the specimens.

3.12.1898   I took a long walk, though the weather was bad, it was cold and windy and the drizzle poured from the sky, but as I walked my brain also remained in motion  (the peripatetic school) – in my apartment I can only move an inch or two  at a time, as there are books and papers all over the floor.  I must outline the contents of an article, there is not enough light for microscope work, and my eyesight is not what it was. Constance has not visited.

4.12.1898   The next time the year changes, we shall be on the threshold of a new century, and a hundred years after that there will be a new millennium, too.  I shall sink into history, and no one will remember me. Elise maintains that the “good” people will be remembered, because their memory will be transferred from friends and relatives to subsequent generations, but I am not a “good” person! If friends (?) and enemies are to be believed, I am:  sharp-tongued, cantankerous, malicious, quick-tempered, unforgiving, rancorous, suspicious, jealous, bitter, pig-headed, egocentric, ill-bred, and stingy. Among other things.

5.12.1898  Plain talking is not valued in academic  "social circles", and rebuttals must be wrapped in cotton wool, so as not to "offend" anyone. But is the cause of science advanced in this way?  Honesty has always been my guiding principle. But it is not enough – for everything to go smoothly one must please, no matter how insignificant one’s work! Even  in ancient times one could  succeed by means of  eloquence, although one’s other achievements were not particularly impressive.

8.12.1898   Perhaps I am not a nice person, perhaps no one likes me – let alone loves me – so I can hardly expect even pity as my lot.

10.12. 1898   A.B. came to visit, even though in a letter I had forbidden him to, as except for  Constance I do not want to let anyone into my apartment,  and my friends know that, but A.B. was stubborn, and rang my doorbell despite my prohibition, which made me angry, because I was dressed in a morning coat and cardigan, with woollen socks on my feet, and was not prepared to receive a visit. A.B. did not, however, turn away from the door, but came inside, because I did not think I could stop him by force. He brought me meat pasties and egg pasties, two cakes coated in pink sugar, a bottle of burgundy and a newspaper, but my wrath did not abate until he handed me a surprise, which was a reproduction of  Georges Seurat’s painting "La Grand Jatte"!  After he left, I studied the picture closely, and I am just as thrilled as when I saw the original work, though the copy fails to do it full justice. I like Seurat’s "scientific" way of painting, for he is not content with an obvious or flat surface like the painters of the old school who try to carefully imitate the reality that is visible to the eye. Instead,  S. disperses and reassembles, and in this process I see a confluence with microscope work, when the gaze is directed on even the smallest elements, and the brain traces their  significance and completeness. A. B. also talked about the other "Impressionists", whose paintings he believes I ought to see, but perhaps this one alone will suffice. Once I had moved the other things away, I leaned the picture against the edge of the stove.

11.12.1898   Sunday. On Rue Didot there was a modest funeral. When I stopped to raise my hat,  Madame L. hurried up to me, whispering in a loud voice that "he ought not to be buried in consecrated ground, because he took his own life," and it was apparently the same coal merchant whom I saw in the summer. In my opinion he need not have troubled to take his own life, as he would soon have died from high blood pressure and heart failure in any case. I didn’t jump into the Seine, and I am already at an age where I know that  Nature takes care of death in due time, so there is no point in hurrying.

12.12.1898   At night it was cold, and I felt so chilled that I shivered. I got up in the dark to fetch a coat to put on top of my quilt. In the morning the outside thermometer read -3, and when I went out to buy milk and bread I saw that  the water flowing from the drainpipes had frozen in the street, which the little boys thought was fun, because they could “skate". The cold and darkness prevented me from working at the microscope. Of the things that  A. B. had brought me I still had 1 egg pasty, 1 cake, and ¼ bottle of wine. After I had eaten, at 4 pm I went to bed.

16.12.1898   I shiver and have no appetite, I suffer from shortness of breath and pains in my joints, my stomach is bad and I am unable to work, but I will endure, for I know that I have done the right thing, I have not curried favour with anyone, I have not sold myself, I live like a poor artist, even though I am a scientist, and posterity will not remember me though I have sacrificed my whole life to science. I suppose art is never "wrong" as science can be, but is that any consolation to  the artists whose work is not valued and not purchased? (G. Seurat  is said to have been a wealthy man, but he had a very short life.)


(to be continued)


[William N. päiväkirja, Otava, 2011]

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

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