|Constantine - Algeria|
Belloc, in his essay "On a Lost Manuscript," in On Nothing, speaks whimsically of some pages that he lost in a cab, evidently a horse cab as he speaks of "a trap door on the top of the roof", on Vigo Street in London, "at the corner." He did not exactly lose his essay, but unaccountably left it in the cab. He even went to Scotland Yard to try to see if some honourable cabbie had turned it in, only to be told that "cabmen very rarely brought back ... written things, but rather sticks, gloves, rings, purses, parcels, umbrellas, and the crushed hats of drunken men."
This lost essay was to have appeared on page 127 of On Nothing and was one that Belloc had worked upon until it was near perfect. He had kept it with him a whole year, rewriting, improving. It never left his side (he had no hard disc with a back-up). It crossed the Pyrenees seven times and the Mediterranean twice. Belloc even tells of fording the "Sousseyou", holding it high out of the water. Thus far, I have not been able to locate this river.
Belloc informs us of where he began to write this essay -- "... it was in Constantine, upon the Rock of Citra, where the storms came howling at you from Mount Atlas and where you feel yourself part of the sky." Oddly enough, I had just written an essay, (Crisis, November, 1996), about the seven Trappist monks from their Monastery in the same Atlas Mountains in Algeria, monks who were, last Easter, slaughtered by Muslim cadre.
And the only thing I vaguely recalled about Constantine was that I had some time ago read an essay of Albert Camus in which the city of Constantine appeared. I went to my shelves to see if I could find the reference. It turned out to be in an essay in Camus' Lyrical and Critical Essays, "entitled, "A Short Guide to Towns without a Past." I thought to myself both "What a wonderful title!" and "How could you have a 'long' history of towns without a past?"
This is what Camus said about Constantine, the place where Belloc wrote his lost essay, feeling himself "part of the sky": "In Constantine, you can always stroll around the bandstand. But since the sea is several hundred kilometers away, there is something in the people you meet there. In general, and because of this geographical location, Constantine offers fewer attractions, although the quality of its ennui is rather more delicate." One wonders what Belloc, that vital man, would have made of the notion of "delicate ennui"?
Belloc's lost manuscript was begun on the 17th of January in 1905. He was sitting where, as he unexpectedly recalled, the Numidian king Massinissa (210-149 B.C.) had come in "riding through the only gate of the city, sitting his horse without stirrups or bridle." Where is this from, I wonder, Livy? In any case, over his shoulder, an Arab was trying to read what Belloc was writing but could not understand the words; however, "the Muses understood and Apollo, which were its authors almost as much as I." Belloc was most pleased with his essay, the subject of which seems to have been the consequences to the Mediterranean costal trade because of the opening of Suez, an unlikely subject for such lofty sentiments, to be sure, but with Belloc almost any topic sufficed to reach the highest things..
Belloc's essay is really, of course, about losing things, about the fact, that as far as we know, things can indeed be lost. We are sometimes loathe to face this fact. He realized that he could never replace his essay; not even he could remember what he wrote or how he wrote it. He was aware of theories that would suggest that someday, in the future, beyond this life, perhaps, we could read this essay again, hear it praised for its worth -- "I will not console myself with the uncertain guess that things perished are in some way recoverable beyond the stars...."
This was not a skepticism about our destiny. Belloc, I think, must be understood in a way different from those of a more Platonic bent. He was too vividly aware of the loveliness of things and their passingness to be lightly put off by the prospects of future delight or knowledge. Thus, early in the essay, he writes, poignantly, "You all know how, coming eagerly to a house to see someone dearly loved, you find in their place on entering a sister or a friend who makes excuses for them...." (On reading this touching sentence grammatically, it again brings to mind an exchange I once had about the English use of the apparently singular "someone" with the plural modifying pronoun "their").
Clearly, Belloc does not end his essay in flaming hope. He does not maintain, however, that the possibility of seeing his essay again, possibly his loved ones again, is vain. He concludes, "It may be so. But the loss is certain."
Is this the "delicate ennui" that Camus experienced in Constantine suddenly appearing in Belloc? At first sight, it might seem so. But, as I said, this essay, the one not lost, is about losing things. Every day we see infinite things we shall never see again. Every day we compose essays in our minds we shall never write. We accustom ourselves, as we probably should, to notice mostly the things that might recur. We are not wrong to hope that "beyond the stars" we can recover what is lost.
But the first thing we must do is know that we have lost something. We must have enough love of reality, including the sticks, umbrellas, and the "crushed hats of drunken men", enough expectation "to come eagerly into a house" to know that someone is not there, something is lost. Only when we begin with this vivid realization of loss can we begin to hope. "It may be so. But the loss is certain."
As Belloc wrote on the Rock of Citra, in Constantine, "a town without a past", he recalled that the Numidian King Massinissa had ridden through the single gate of this city "sitting his horse without stirrups or bridle" -- so it was, after all, a town with a history.
One of Belloc's essays is lost; not even Scotland Year could find it. This loss is certain, because another of his essays, not on the "effect of the piercing of the Suez Canal upon coastwise trade in the Mediterranean", is not lost. I will not, in the end, say that "nothing was lost." I will say that the certainty that something is lost must be our beginning. "You all know how, coming eagerly to a house to see someone dearly loved, you find in their place on entering...."
But the loss alone is certain.
From Schall on Belloc, Generally Speaking, June, 1997.