Voltaire

The White Bull: The Princess & the Serpent
(Excerpts from chapters 3 & 9)


CHAPTER 3

How the fair Amasida held secret converse
with a handsome serpent

The fair Princess bid her ladies breathe not a word of what they had seen. They all promised to keep the secret, and indeed kept it for an entire day. As may be imagined, Amasida slept little that night. Some unaccountable charm repeatedly brought her handsome bull to mind. As soon as she could be alone with her wise Mambres, she said to him:

‘O wise man! That creature has quite turned my head.’

‘He rather occupies mine too,’ said Mambres. ‘It is quite clear to me that this particular cherub is a considerable cut above the rest of his species. I see too that there is a great mystery in all this, but I fear something awful is going to happen. Your father Amasis is a violent and suspicious man. This whole business requires that you proceed with the greatest possible prudence.’

‘Oh, I’m too full of curiosity to be prudent. It is the only passion which can find room in my heart beside that which devours me for the lover I have lost. What? Am I then not to know what manner of thing this white bull is, that is causing such an uncommon stir within me?’

‘Madam,’ replied Mambres, ‘I have told you before that my learning is diminishing as I grow older. But unless I am very much mistaken, the serpent knows all about that which you are so eager to discover. He is clever, he knows how to put things, and he has long been accustomed to taking a hand in ladies’ affairs.’

‘Oh, of course,’ said Amasida, ‘he must be that handsome Egyptian serpent that puts his tail in his mouth and symbolizes eternity, the one who lights up the world when he opens his eyes and who casts it into darkness as soon as he shuts them again.’

‘No, madam.’

‘The serpent of Aesculapius, then?’

‘Even less likely.’

‘Jupiter perhaps, in the form of a serpent?’

‘Absolutely not.’

‘Oh, I know. It's that rod of yours that you once turned into a serpent?’

‘No, I tell you, madam. But all these serpents do belong to the same family. This particular one has a considerable reputation where he comes from. He's said to be the cleverest serpent there has ever been. Consult him. But I warn you, it's a very dangerous business. If I were you, I would forget about all of them. bull, she-ass, serpent, whale, dog, goat, raven, dove, the whole lot of them. But passion has got the better of you. All I can do is pity you and fear for you.’

The Princess beseeched him to arrange a tête-à-tête for her with the serpent. Mambres, kind man that he was, consented; and, ever deep in thought, went off to find his pythoness. He put to her this latest notion of his Princess with such oblique subtlety that he persuaded her.

The old woman told him that on Amasida’s head be it; that the serpent knew a great deal about life and living; that he was most polite with the ladies; that he asked for nothing better than to oblige them; and that he would attend their rendezvous.

The old magus returned to the Princess with this good news; but he remained afraid that something was going to go wrong, and he still thought his thoughts.

‘You wished to speak to the serpent, madam. He awaits Your Highness’s pleasure. Remember that you must flatter him a good deal. For all creatures are essentially vain, and no one more so than him. It is even said that he was once expelled from some lovely place or other on account of his excessive pride.’

‘I’ve never heard that,’ objected the Princess.

‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ replied the old man.

He then told her all the various rumours that had circulated about this most celebrated serpent.

‘But, madam, whatever strange things may have happened to him, you will not get his secret out of him unless you flatter him. In a nearby land he is said to have once played a thoroughly villainous trick on women. It is right that a woman should try to beguile him in return.’

‘I shall do what I can,’ said the Princess.

And so she set out with her ladies from the palace and the good eunuch-magus. At this time the old woman had set the white bull to graze quite some distance away. Mambres left Amasida on her own, and went to talk to the pythoness. The principal lady-in-waiting chatted with the she-ass. The other court ladies amused themselves with the goat, the dog, the raven, and the dove. As for the great whale, it was frightening everybody, so the old woman ordered it back into the Nile.

The serpent at once went up to Amasida in the grove, and together they had the following conversation.

THE SERPENT

You have no idea how flattered I am, madam, by the honour which Your Highness has deigned to do me.

THE PRINCESS

Sir, your great reputation, the delicacy of your features, and the sparkle in your eye quickly persuaded me to seek this tête-à-tête with you. I have heard it said among the people (if such a source may be relied upon) that you were once a great lord in the empyreal heaven.

THE SERPENT

It is true, madam, that I did once occupy rather a distinguished position up there. It is claimed that I was once a favourite and have since fallen into disgrace, but that’s just a rumour that started in India. The Brahmans were the first to produce any substantial account of my adventures. [1] I have no doubt that the Northern poets will one day write an exceedingly strange epic poem about them, for, in all honesty, there is very little else you can do with them. But I am not so fallen that I don’t still hold very considerable sway here on earth. I would almost venture to say that I have the whole world in my hands.

THE PRINCESS

I believe it, sir, for it is said that you have a talent for persuading people of anything you wish. And to please is to reign.

THE SERPENT

I find, madam, as I look upon you and listen to what you say, that you hold over me that very power which I am supposed to have over so many other souls.

THE PRINCESS

You are, I think, an amiable victor. People say that you have won many ladies over in your time, and that you started with our common mother, whose name escapes me.

THE SERPENT

People malign me. I gave her the best advice in the world. She placed her faith in me, and my view was that she and her husband should gorge themselves on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In suggesting such a thing I thought I should meet with the approval of the master of things. It seemed to me that a tree that was so essential to the human race had not been planted to serve no purpose at all. Would the master have wanted to be served by idiots and illiterates? Was the mind not created that it might enlighten itself, might improve itself? Is it not necessary to know both good and evil that we may do the one and avoid the other? There is no doubt about it, I should have been thanked.

THE PRINCESS

Yet they say that in your case no good came of it. It would seem that it's since then that so many ministers have been punished for giving good advice, and that so many real men of learning, so many great minds, have been persecuted for writing things that are useful to the human race.

THE SERPENT

It would seem, madam, that my enemies have been telling you tales. They go about proclaiming that I have fallen from favour in the court of heaven. Proof that I still have considerable influence up there is that they themselves admit that I was on the council when there was that question of putting job to the test; and that I was afforced to it again when they took the decision to play a certain little King called Ahab false. [2] That noble commission was entrusted to nobody else but me.

THE PRINCESS

Ah, sir, I cannot believe that you are one to play a person false. But since you are still a member of the council, may I ask if you would grace me with a favour? I hope that such an amiable lord as yourself will not refuse me.

THE SERPENT

Madam, your wish is my command. What are your orders?

THE PRINCESS

I beg you to tell me about this white bull, for whom I am filled with such incomprehensible feelings which both melt my heart and strike terror into my breast. I have been told that you would be kind enough to explain things to me.

THE SERPENT

Madam, curiosity is an essential part of human nature, and especially among the members of your delightful sex. Without it people would remain sunk in the most shameful ignorance. I have always sought, to the best of my ability, to satisfy the curiosity of the ladies. People accuse me of being so ready to oblige merely to spite the master of things. I swear to you that my one object would be to oblige you also. But the old woman must have warned you that there is some danger for you in the revelation of this secret.

THE PRINCESS

Ah, but that’s what makes me all the more curious.

THE SERPENT

Then you are just like all the other fair ladies to whom I have been of service.

THE PRINCESS

If you have any feeling at all, if it is true that people should help each other, if you will have pity on a poor unfortunate, do not refuse me.

THE SERPENT

You are breaking my heart. I must satisfy you. But do not interrupt me.

THE PRINCESS

I promise.


[1] The Brahmans were indeed the first to imagine a revolt in heaven, and this fable served for a long time afterwards as the basis for a story about the war of the giants against the gods, and for a good few other stories as well.

[2] 1 Kings 22: 20-2; ‘And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead? [...] And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him. And the Lord said unto him, Wherewith? [...] And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so.’


CHAPTER 9

How the serpent brought her no comfort

‘I find stories like that boring,’ remarked the fair Amasida, who had both intelligence and good taste. ‘All they’'re good for is having commentaries written about them by Irishmen like that lunatic Abbadie, or Frenchmen like that phrasemonger of a Houteville.* The sort of story that might once have been told to the great-great-great-grandmother of the great-great-great-grandmother of my grandmother will no longer do for me, educated as I have been by wise Mambres, and having read the Essay Concerning Human Understanding of our Egyptian philosopher Locke, not to mention the Widow of Ephesus. * I require a story to be essentially plausible, and not always sounding like the account of a dream. I prefer it to be neither trivial nor far-fetched. I particularly like the ones which, from beneath the veil of the plot, reveal to the experienced eye some subtle truth that will escape the common herd. I am tired of suns and moons that old women do as they please with, and mountains that dance, and rivers that flow back to their source, and dead people coming back to life. * But, worst of all, when this sort of nonsense is written in an inflated and incomprehensible style, I find it dreadfully tiresome. As you can appreciate, a girl who is afraid of seeing her lover gobbled up at any moment by a great whale and of having her head cut off by her very own father, does need something to keep her amused. But try to amuse me in a manner to suit my taste.’

‘That’s rather a tall order,’ replied the serpent. ‘Time was when I could have helped you while away many a happy hour. But latterly my imagination and my memory have not been quite what they were. Alas, where are the days when I used to entertain the girls? Still, let’s see if I can remember some moral tale to please you. [. . . .’]

[Two tales follow, the first sexually suggestive, the second not, more of a parable. The Princess did not approve of either.]

Explanatory Notes

[*] 304 [. . .]

that lunatic Abbadie . . . Houteville: Abbadie, a (French) Protestant, had written a Christian apologetic entitled Traité de la vérité de la religion chrétienne in 1684, which was republished several times and used also by Catholics. The abbé Houteville had published his La Religion chrétienne prouvée par les faits in 1721. Voltaire mocked them for using the ‘cannibals’ fables’ of the Old Testament as witness to the coming of Christ.

the Widow of Ephesus: a tale by La Fontaine, based on an episode in Petronius’s Satyricon. The story is the source of the Widow Cosrou scene in Zadig, Chapter 2.

... dead people coming back to life: Horace, Epode, v. 45-6; Psalms 114: 4; Joshua 3: 14-17; 2 Kings 4: 32-7.


SOURCE: “The White Bull” (1773/4), in Candide and Other Stories, by Voltaire, translated with an introduction and notes by Roger Pearson (Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 275-312. Excerpts: Chapter 3, pp. 282-287; Chapter 9: pp. 304-5, with explanatory note, p. 328-329. Footnotes in the main text have been converted to numbered endnotes here.


Zadig’s Wisdom vs Providence by Voltaire

Voltaire’s philosophical tales: commentary by R. Dumain

The Dialectic of Common Sense: The Master Thinkers by Ivan Sviták

Diderot, Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings

Intellectual Life in Society: Bibliography: The Enlightenment

Doubt & Skepticism: A Directed Minimal Bibliography & Web Guide

Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress

Historical Surveys of Atheism, Freethought, Rationalism, Skepticism, and Materialism: Selected Works

Offsite:

The White Bull - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The White Bull (1906)
by Voltaire, translated by William F. Fleming

Voltaire by J. B. Shank
(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


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Uploaded 9 November 2018

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