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116 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1901
Once I had corrected his mistake, I asked him to explain it, and received the usual rather surprised answers: surely everyone had a right to make a slip of the tongue now and then, it was only a coincidence, there was nothing behind it, etc. I replied that every slip of the tongue was made for some reason . . . He added that a man like me, meticulously studying every tiny detail, was positively dangerous, and then he suddenly recollected another appointment and left us.
If one of my family complains of having bitten his or her tongue, pinched a finger, or so on, I am inclined to ask: ‘What did you do that for?’ Instead of offering the sympathy expected of me.
Last summer—again while I was away on holiday—I renewed my acquaintance with a young man who had an academic education and, as I soon realised, was familiar with several of my psychological publications. I no longer remember how we broached the subject but we were talking about the social standing of the race to which we both belong, and he, being an ambitious man, was deploring the fact that his generation, as he put it, was condemned to waste away unable to develop its talents or satisfy its needs. He concluded his passionately felt remarks with that famous line of Virgil in which the unfortunate Dido urges posterity to avenge her on Aeneas: Exoriare . . . or rather that was how he meant to conclude, for he could not finish the quotation, and sought to conceal an obvious gap in his memory by rearranging the words: Exoriar(e) ex nostris ossisbus ultor! At last he said, in some annoyance:
—Please don’t smile in that ironic way as if you were relishing my difficulty—you might help me instead. There’s something the matter with the line. How does the whole thing really go?
—I’ll be happy to tell you, I replied, and quoted the line as it really runs: Exoriar(e) aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor! [May someone rise, as avenger, from my bones!]
—How stupid of me to forget a word like that. But you’re always saying that people don’t forget things for no reason at all. Can you tell me how I came to forget the impersonal pronoun aliquis?
I readily accepted the challenge, hoping for a contribution to my collection, so I said
—We can get to the root of it at once if you’ll tell me everything that occurs to you when you concentrate on the word you forgot, without any definite intention in mind but honestly and exercising no critical judgement.
—All right, I think of the ridiculous idea of dividing the word into two parts, like this: a and liquis.
—What does that suggest to you?
—I’ve no idea.
—So what else occurs to you?
—Well it goes on like this: relics—liquidation—liquidity—fluid. Does that tell you any more?
—No, not by a long way. But go on.
—Well, he continued with a sarcastic laugh, I think of Simone of Trento, whose relics I saw a couple of years ago in a church in that city. I think of the accusations of ritual sacrifice once again being levelled against the Jews these days, and I think of the work by Kleinpaul, who sees all the alleged victims as incarnations of the Saviour, new editions of him, so to speak.
—That idea isn’t entirely unconnected with the subject we were discussing before you forgot the Latin word.
—You’re right. And then I think of a piece I read recently in an Italian newspaper. I think the headline was: The Opinions of Saint Augustine on Women. What do you make of that?
—I’m still waiting to see.
—Well, now I come to something that quite certainly has no connection with our subject.
—I did ask you to abstain from any critical judgement.
—All right, I know. Well, I remember a fine-looking old gentleman whom I met on my travels last week. A real original who looks like a great bird of prey. His name is Benedikt, in case that’s of any interest.
—At least we now have a whole series of saints and church fathers:St Simon, St Augustine, St Benedikt. And I believe one of the church fathers was called Origen. What’s more, three of those names are first names, like Paul, part of the surname Kleinpaul.
—Next I think of St Januarius and the miracle of his blood—but I imagine all this is just mechanical association.
—Never mind that; St Januarius and St Augustine are both connected with the calendar. Can you remind me of the miracle of the saint’s blood?
—Oh, surely you know that! There’s a phial of the blood of St Januarius which is kept in a Neapolitan church and miraculously liquifies on a certain east-day. The people think highly of this miracle and get very upset if it is late to occur, as it once was under French occupation. At the time the commanding general—or am I wrong there? Was it Garibaldi?—well, he took the print aside and let him know, indicating the soldiers posted outside in a very meaningful manner, that he very much hoped the miracle would soon take place. And sure enough, so it did . . .
—Well go on. Why do you hesitate?
—I’ve just thought of something . . . but it’s too private to tell you . . . anyway, I can’t see any connection, so there’s no need to mention it.
—Leave me to make the connections. I can’t force you to tell me something if you’d rather not, but in that case you can’t ask me to tell you how you came to forget the word aliquis either.
—Really? You think not? Very well, I suddenly thought of a lady who might soon be giving me news that would be very unwelcome to both of us.
—You mean she’s missed her period?
—How on earth did you guess that?
—It’s not so difficult. You gave me plenty of background information. Remember the calendar saints, the liquefaction of the blood on a certain day, the agitation when it failed to occur, the overt threat to the effect that the miracle must happen, or else . . . The fact is that you reworked the miracle of St Januarius to make it an ingenious reference to the lady’s period.
—I had no idea. Do you really think I couldn’t come up with that little word aliquis just because I’m waiting anxiously for news?
—I’m sure of it. Remember the way you separated it into a-liquis, and then the associations with relics, liquidation, fluid. And need I point out how St Simon the child martyr, of whom the relics reminded you, fits into this context?
—I’d rather you didn’t;t. I hope you won’t take these ideas of mine seriously—that is, if I ever really had them. In return I’ll confess that the lady is Italian, and I went to Naples with her. But couldn’t it all be coincidence?
—I must leave you to your own judgement to decide whether you can explain away all these connections by assuming confidence. But I can tell you that any similar case, if you care to offer it for analysis, will lead you to equally remarkable “coincidences”.