Monthly Archives: May 2012

Last night I read, for the third or fourth time, Diderot’s second satire, commonly known as Rameau’s Nephew (Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Margaret Mauldon). If you’ve never read it, you’ve missed (as I did until recently) not just one of the world’s great classics but one of the most modern pieces of literature you’ll ever come upon.

It’s also great fun. The nephew of the title (yes, that Rameau) is one of the finest characters of fiction, right up there with Shakespeare’s and Dickens’s. Rameau’s Nephew was written about 1761 but not published until Goethe got hold of it by circuitous means, and then it was published in bowdlerized versions for most of the next century until a true copy showed up in a used book stall. The story of the manuscript is itself worth reading.

I think you’ll see what I mean by its being modern. It’s as if the intervening centuries melt away like the manners and inhibitions of a long, alien regime we’ve had to endure but can now return to our more natural way of thinking and feeling.

See if you don’t agree.

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YOU LEARN

by Jorge Luis Borges

After a while you learn the subtle difference
between holding a hand and chaining a soul,

and you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
and company doesn’t mean security.

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises,

and you begin to accept your defeats
with your head up and your eyes open
with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,

and you learn to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans

and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn
that even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure.

That you really are strong.

And you really do have worth.

And you learn. And learn.

With every good-bye you learn.