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Authors: Nathanael West

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The Dream Life of Balso Snell

BOOK: The Dream Life of Balso Snell
9.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Nathanael West




To A. S.


“After all, my dear fellow, life, Anaxagoras has said, is a journey.”





While walking in the tall grass that has sprung up around the city of Troy, Balso Snell came upon the famous wooden horse of the Greeks. A poet, he remembered Homer’s ancient song and decided to find a way in.

On examining the horse, Balso found that there were but three openings: the mouth, the navel, and the posterior opening of the alimentary canal. The mouth was beyond his reach, the navel proved a cul-de-sac, and so, forgetting his dignity, he approached the last. 0 Anus Mirabilis!

Along the lips of the mystic portal he discovered writings which after a little study he was able to decipher. Engraved in a heart pierced by an arrow and surmounted by the initial N, he read, “Ah! Qualls…Artifex…Pereo!” Not to be outdone by the actor-emperor, Balso carved with his penknife another heart and the words “0 Byss! 0 Abyss! 0 Anon! 0 Anan!” omitting, however, the arrow and his initial.

Before entering he prayed:

“0 Beer! 0 Meyerbeer! 0 Bach! 0 Offenbach! Stand me now as ever in good stead.”

Balso immediately felt like the One at the Bridge, the Two in the Bed, the Three in the Boat, the Four on Horseback, the Seven Against Thebes. And with a high heart he entered the gloom of the foyer-like lower intestine.

After a little while, seeing no one and hearing nothing, Balso began to feel depressed. To keep his heart high and yet out of his throat, he made a song.

Round as the Anus Of a Bronze Horse Or the Tender Buttons Used by Horses for Ani

On the Wheels of His Car Ringed Round with Brass Clamour the Seraphim Tongues of Our Lord

Full Ringing Round As the Belly of Silenus Giotto Painter of Perfect Circles Goes…One Motion Round

Round and Full Round and Full as A Brimming Goblet The Dew-Loaded Navel Of Mary Of Mary Our Mother

Round and Ringing Full As the Mouth of a Brimming Goblet The Rust-Laden Holes In Our Lord’s Feet. Entertain the Jew-Driven Nails.

He later gave this song various names, the most successful of which were:
Anywhere Out of the World, or a Voyage Through the Hole in the Mundane Millstone
At Hoops with the Ani of Bronze Horses, or Toe Holes for a Flight of Fancy

But despite the gaiety of his song, Balso did not feel sure of himself. He thought of the Phoenix Excrementi, a race of men he had invented one Sunday afternoon while in bed, and trembled, thinking he might well meet one in this place. And he had good cause to tremble, for the Phoenix Excrementi eat themselves, digest themselves, and give birth to themselves by evacuating their bowels.

Hoping to attract the attention of an inhabitant, Balso shouted as though overwhelmed by the magnificence of his surroundings:

“0 the Rose Gate! 0 the Moist Garden! 0 Well! 0 Fountain! 0 Sticky Flower! 0 Mucous Membrane!”

A man with “Tours” embroidered on his cap stalked out of the shadow. In order to prove a poet’s right to trespass, Balso quoted from his own works:

“If you desire to have two parallel lines meet at once or even in the near future,” he said, “it is important to make all the necessary arrangements beforehand, preferably by wireless.”

The man ignored his little speech. “Sir,” he said, “you are an ambassador from that ingenious people, the inventors and perfectors of the automatic water-closet, to my people who are the heirs of Greece and Rome. As your own poet has so well put it, ‘The Grandeur that was Greece and the Glory that was Rome’…I offer you my services as guide. First you will please look to the right where you will see a beautiful Doric prostate gland swollen with gladness and an over-abundance of good cheer.”

This speech made Balso very angry. “Inventors of the automatic water-closet, are we?” he shouted. “Oh, you stinker! Doric, bah! It’s Baptist ‘68, that’s what it is. And no prostate gland either, simply an atrophied pile. You call this dump grand and glorious, do you? Have you ever seen the Grand Central Station, or the Yale Bowl, or the Holland Tunnel, or the New Madison Square Garden? Exposed plumbing, stinker, that’s all I see—and at this late date. It’s criminally backward, do you hear me?”

The guide gave ground before Balso’s rage. “Please sir,” he said, “please…After all, the ages have sanctified this ground, great men have hallowed it. In Rome do as the Romans do.”

“Stinker,” Balso repeated, but less ferociously this time.

The guide took heart. “Mind your manners, foreigner. If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from? But before you go let me tell you a story—an old tale of my people, rich in local color. And, you force me to say it, apropos, timely. However, let me assure you that I mean no offense. The title of the story is



“A traveler in Tyana, who was looking for the sage Appolonius, saw a snake enter the lower part of a man’s body. Approaching the man, he said:

“‘Pardon me, my good fellow, but a snake just entered your…’ He finished by pointing.

“‘Yes sir, he lives there,’ was the astounding rejoinder.

“‘Ah, then you must be the man I’m looking for, the philosopher-saint, Appolonius of Tyana. Here is a letter of introduction from my brother George. May I see the snake please? Now the opening. Perfect!’” Balso echoed the last word of the story. “Perfect! Perfect! A real old-world fable. You may consider yourself hired.”

“I have other stories to tell,” the guide said, “and I shall tell them as we go along. By the way, have you heard the one about Moses and the Burning Bush? How the prophet rebuked the Bush for speaking by quoting the proverb, ‘Good wine needs no bush’; and how the Bush insolently replied, ‘A hand in the Bush is worth two in the pocket.’” Balso did not consider this story nearly as good as the other; in fact he thought it very bad, yet he was determined to make no more breaks and entered the large intestine on the arm of his guide. He let the guide do all the talking and they made great headway up the tube. But, unfortunately, coming suddenly upon a place where the intestine had burst through the stomach wall, Balso cried out in amazement:

“What a hernia! What a hernia!”

The guide began to splutter with rage and Balso tried to pacify him by making believe he had not meant the scenery. “Hernia,” he said, rolling the word on his tongue. “What a pity childish associations cling to beautiful words such as hernia, making their use as names impossible. Hernia! What a beautiful name for a girl! Hernia Hornstein! Paresis Pearlberg! Paranoia Puntz! How much more pleasing to the ear [and what other sense should a name please?] than Faith Rabinowitz or Hope Hilkowitz.”

But Balso had only blundered again. “Sirrah!” the guide cried in an enormous voice, “I am a Jew! and whenever anything Jewish is mentioned, I find it necessary to say that I am a Jew. I’m a Jew! A Jew!”

“Oh, you mistake me,” Balso said, “I have nothing against the Jews. I admire the Jews; they are a thrifty race. Some of my best friends are Jews.” But his protests availed him little until he thought to quote C. M. Doughty’s epigram. “The semites,” Balso said with great firmness, “are like to a man sitting in a cloaca to the eyes, and whose brows touch-heaven.”

When Balso had at last succeeded in quieting the guide, he tried to please him further by saying that the magnificent tunnel stirred him to the quick and that he would be satisfied to spend his remaining days in it with but a few pipes and a book.

The guide tossed up his arms in one of those eloquent gestures the latins know so well how to perform and said:

“After all, what is art? I agree with George Moore. Art is not nature, but rather nature digested. Art is a sublime excrement.”

“And Daudet?” Balso queried.

“Oh, Daudet! Daudet, c’est de bouillabaisse! You know, George Moore also says, ‘What care I that the virtue of some sixteen-year-old maiden was the price paid for Ingres’ La Source?’ Now…”

“Picasso says,” Balso broke in, “Picasso says there are no feet in nature…And, thanks for showing me around. I have to leave.”

But before he was able to get away, the guide caught him by the collar. “Just a minute, please. You were right to interrupt. We should talk of art, not artists. Please explain your interpretation of the Spanish master’s dictum.”

“Well, the point is…” Balso began. But before he could finish the guide started again. “If you are willing to acknowledge the existence of points,” he said, “then the statement that there are no feet in nature puts you in an untenable position. It depends for its very meaning on the fact that there are no points. Picasso, by making this assertion, has placed himself on the side of monism in the eternal wrangle between the advocates of the Singular and those of the Plural. As James puts it, ‘Does reality exist distributively or collectively—in the shape of
eaches , everys, anys, eithers
or only in the shape of an
?’ If reality is singular then there are no feet in nature, if plural, a great many. If the world is one [everything part of the same thing—called by Picasso nature] then nothing either begins or ends. Only when things take the shapes of
eaches , everys, anys, eithers
[have ends] do they have feet. Feet are attached to ends, by definition. Moreover, if everything is one, and has neither ends nor beginnings, then everything is a circle. A circle has neither a beginning nor an end. A circle has no feet If we believe that nature is a circle, then we must also believe that there are no feet in nature.

“Do not pooh-pooh this idea as mystical. Bergson has…”

“Cezanne said, ‘Everything tends toward the globular.’” With this announcement Balso made another desperate at tempt to escape.

“Cezanne?” the guide said, keeping a firm hold on Balso’s collar. “Cezanne is right The sage of Aix is…” With a violent twist, Balso tore loose and fled.

Balso fled down the great tunnel until he came upon a man, naked except for a derby in which thorns were sticking, who was attempting to crucify himself with thumb tacks. His curiosity got the better of his fear and he stopped.

“Can I help your he asked politely.

“No,” the man answered with even greater politeness, tipping his hat repeatedly as he spoke. “No, I can manage, thank you…

“My name is Maloney the Areopagite,” the man continued, answering the questions Balso was too well-bred to word, “and I am a catholic mystic. I believe implicitly in that terrible statement of Saint Hildegarde’s, ‘The lord dwells not in the bodies of the healthy and vigorous.’ I live as did Marie Alacoque, Suso, Labre, Lydwine of Schiedam, Rose of Lima. When my suffering is not too severe, I compose verses in imitation of Notker Balbus, Ekkenard le Vieux, Hucbald le Chauve.

“In the feathered darkness Of thy mouth, O Mother of God! I worship Christ The culminating rose.

“Get the idea? I spend the rest of my time marveling at the love shown by all the great saints for even the lowliest of God’s creatures. Have you ever heard of Benedict Labre? It was he who picked up the vermin that fell out of his hat and placed them piously back into his sleeve. Before calling in a laundress, another very holy man removed the vermin from his clothes in order not to drown the jewels of sanctity infesting them.

“Inspired by these thoughts I have decided to write the biography of Saint Puce, a great martyred member of the vermin family. If you are interested, I will give you a short precis of his life.

“Please do so, sir,” Balso said. “Live and learn is my motto, Mr. Maloney, so please continue.”

“Saint Puce was a flea,” Maloney the Areopagite began in a well-trained voice. “A flea who was born, lived, and died, beneath the arm of our Lord.

“Saint Puce was born from an egg that was laid in the flesh of Christ while as a babe He played on the floor of the stable in Bethlehem. That the flesh of a god has been a stage in the incubation of more than one being is well known: Dionysius and Athene come to mind.

“Saint Puce had two mothers: the winged creature that laid the egg, and the God that hatched it in His flesh. Like most of us, he had two fathers: our Father Who art in Heaven, and he who in the cocksureness of our youth we called ‘pop.

“Which of his two fathers fertilized the egg? I cannot answer with certainty, but the subsequent actions of Saint Puce’s life lead me to believe that the egg was fertilized by a being whose wings were of feathers. Yes, I mean the Dove or Paraclete—the Sanctus Spiritus. In defense of this belief antiquity will help us again: it is only necessary to remember Leda and Europa. And I must remind you, you who might plead a puce too small physically, of the nature of God’s love and how it embraceth all.

“0 happy, happy childhood! Playing in the curled brown silk, sheltered from all harm by Christ’s arm. Eating the sweet flesh of our Saviour; drinking His blood; bathing in His sweat; partaking, oh how fully! of His Godhead. Having no need to cry as I have cried:

“Corpus Christi, salva me Sanguis Christi, inebria me Aqua lateris Christi, lave me.

BOOK: The Dream Life of Balso Snell
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