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- The Life of the Fly - 30/49 -
'No,' he replied, accusing himself, perhaps, in his simple mind, of possessing a brain incapable of taking in those transcendental verities.
'Let us try another method.'
And I start again this way and that way and yet another way. My pupil's eyes serve as my thermometer and tell me of the progress of my efforts. A blink of satisfaction announces my success. I have struck home, I have found the joint in the armor. The product of minus multiplied by minus delivers its mysteries to us.
And thus we continued our studies: he, the passive receiver, taking in the ideas acquired without effort; I, the fierce pioneer, blasting my rock, the book, with the aid of much sitting up at night, to extract the diamond, truth. Another and no less arduous task fell to my share: I had to cut and polish the recondite gem, to strip it of its ruggedness and present it to my companion's intelligence under a less forbidding aspect. This diamond cutter's work, which admitted a little light into the precious stone, was the favorite occupation of my leisure; and I owe a great deal to it.
The ultimate result was that my pupil passed his examination. As for the book borrowed by stealth, I restored it to the shelves and replaced it by another, which, this time, belonged to me.
At my normal school, I had learnt a little elementary geometry under a master. From the first few lessons onwards, I rather enjoyed the subject. I divined in it a guide for one's reasoning faculties through the thickets of the imagination; I caught a glimpse of a search after truth that did not involve too much stumbling on the way, because each step forward rests solidly upon the step already taken; I suspected geometry to be what it preeminently is: a school of intellectual fencing.
The truth demonstrated and its application matter little to me; what rouses my enthusiasm is the process that sets the truth before us. We start from a brilliantly lighted spot and gradually get deeper and deeper in the darkness, which, in its turn, becomes self-illuminated by kindling new lights for a higher ascent. This progressive march of the known toward the unknown, this conscientious lantern lighting what follows by the rays of what comes before: that was my real business.
Geometry was to teach me the logical progression of thought; it was to tell me how the difficulties are broken up into sections which, elucidated consecutively, together form a lever capable of moving the block that resists any direct efforts; lastly, it showed me how order is engendered, order, the base of clarity. If it has ever fallen to my lot to write a page or two which the reader has run over without excessive fatigue, I owe it, in great part, to geometry, that wonderful teacher of the art of directing one's thought. True, it does not bestow imagination, a delicate flower blossoming none knows how and unable to thrive on every soil; but it arranges what is confused, thins out the dense, calms the tumultuous, filters the muddy and gives lucidity, a superior product to all the tropes of rhetoric.
Yes, as a toiler with the pen, I owe much to it. Wherefore my thoughts readily turn back to those bright hours of my novitiate, when, retiring to a corner of the garden in recreation time, with a bit of paper on my knees and a stump of pencil in my fingers, I used to practice deducing this or that property correctly from an assemblage of straight lines. The others amused themselves all around me; I found my delight in the frustum of a pyramid. Perhaps I should have done better to strengthen the muscles of my thighs by jumping and leaping, to increase the suppleness of my loins with gymnastic contortions. I have known some contortionists who have prospered beyond the thinker.
See me then entering the lists as an instructor of youth, fairly well acquainted with the elements of geometry. In case of need, I could handle the land surveyor's stake and chain. There my views ended. To cube the trunk of a tree, to gauge a cask, to measure the distance of an inaccessible point appeared to me the highest pitch to which geometrical knowledge could hope to soar. Were there loftier flights? I did not even suspect it, when an unexpected glimpse showed me the puny dimensions of the little corner which I had cleared in the measureless domain.
At that time, the college in which, two years before, I had made my first appearance as a teacher, had just halved the size of its classes and largely increased its staff. The newcomers all lived in the building, like myself, and we had our meals in common at the principal's table. We formed a hive where, in our leisure time, some of us, in our respective cells, worked up the honey of algebra and geometry, history and physics, Greek and Latin most of all, sometimes with a view to the class above, sometimes and oftener with a view to acquiring a degree. The university titles lacked variety. All my colleagues were bachelors of letters, but nothing more. They must, if possible, arm themselves a little better to make their way in the world. We all worked hard and steadily. I was the youngest of the industrious community and no less eager than the rest to increase my modest equipment.
Visits between the different rooms were frequent. We would come to consult one another about a difficulty, or simply to pass the time of day. I had as a neighbor, in the next cell to mine, a retired quartermaster who, weary of barrack life, had taken refuge in education. When in charge of the books of his company he had become more or less familiar with figures; and it became his ambition to take a mathematical degree. His cerebrum appears to have hardened while he was with his regiment. According to my dear colleagues, those amiable retailers of the misfortunes of others, he had already twice been plucked. Stubbornly, he returned to his books and exercises, refusing to be daunted by two reverses.
It was not that he was allured by the beauties of mathematics, far from it; but the step to which he aspired favored his plans. He hoped to have his own boarders and dispense butter and vegetables to lucrative purpose. The lover of study for its own sake and the persistent trapper hunting a diploma as he would something to put in his mouth were not made to understand or to see much of each other. Chance, however, brought us together.
I had often surprised our friend sitting in the evening, by the light of a candle, with his elbows on the table and his head between his hands, meditating at great length in front of a big exercise book crammed with cabalistic signs. From time to time, when an idea came to him, he would take his pen and hastily put down a line of writing wherein letters, large and small, were grouped without any grammatical sense. The letters x and y often recurred, intermingled with figures. Every row ended with the sign of equality and a nought. Next came more reflection, with closed eyes, and a fresh row of letters arranged in a different order and likewise followed by a nought. Page after page was filled in this queer fashion, each line winding up with 0.
'What are you doing with all those rows of figures amounting to zero? ' I asked him one day.
The mathematician gave me a leery look, picked up in barracks. A sarcastic droop in the corner of his eye showed how he pitied my ignorance. My colleague of the many noughts did not, however, take an unfair advantage of his superiority. He told me that he was working at analytical geometry.
The phrase had a strange effect upon me. I ruminated silently to this purpose: there was a higher geometry, which you learnt more particularly with combinations of letters in which x and y played a prominent part. When my next-door neighbor reflected so long, clutching his forehead between his hands, he was trying to discover the hidden meaning of his own hieroglyphics; he saw the ghostly translation of his sums dancing in space. What did he perceive? How would the alphabetical signs, arranged first in one and then in another manner, give an image of the actual things, an image visible to the eyes of the mind alone? It beat me.
'I shall have to learn analytical geometry some day,' I said. 'Will you help me? '
'I'm quite willing,' he replied, with a smile in which I read his lack of confidence in my determination.
No matter; we struck a bargain that same evening. We would together break up the stubble of algebra and analytical geometry, the foundation of the mathematical degree; we would make common stock: he would bring long hours of calculation, I my youthful ardor. We would begin as soon as I had finished with my arts degree, which was my main preoccupation for the moment.
In those far off days it was the rule to make a little serious literary study take precedence of science. You were expected to be familiar with the great minds of antiquity, to converse with Horace and Virgil, Theocritus and Plato, before touching the poisons of chemistry or the levers of mechanics. The niceties of thought could only be the gainers by these preparations. Life's exigencies, ever harsher as progress afflicts us with its increasing needs, have changed all that. A fig for correct language! Business before all!
This modern hurry would have suited my impatience. I confess that I fumed against the regulation which forced Latin and Greek upon me before allowing me to open up relations with the sine and cosine. Today, wiser, ripened by age and experience, I am of a different opinion. I very much regret that my modest literary studies were not more carefully conducted and further prolonged. To fill up this enormous blank a little, I respectfully returned, somewhat late in life, to those good old books which are usually sold second-hand with their leaves hardly cut. Venerable pages, annotated in pencil during the long evenings of my youth, I have found you again and you are more than ever my friends. You have taught me that an obligation rests upon whoever wields the pen: he must have something to say that is capable of interesting us. When the subject comes within the scope of natural science, the interest is nearly always assured; the difficulty, the great difficulty, is to prune it of its thorns and to present it under a prepossessing aspect. Truth, they say, rises naked from a well. Agreed; but admit that she is all the better for being decently clothed. She craves, if not the gaudy furbelows borrowed from rhetoric's wardrobe, at least a vine leaf. The geometers alone have the right to refuse her that modest garment; in theorems, plainness suffices. The others, especially the naturalist, are in duty bound to drape a gauze tunic more or less elegantly around her waist.
Suppose I say: 'Baptiste, give me my slippers.'
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