A Speech

It's all set! On Saturday I am to deliver a speech in the plenary meeting of the SPDRM. There's no way out: I did, in a moment of utter weakness, promise an old friend of mine, Mrs. Parigoridi – so it is now for me a matter of conscience, of honour, of heart even. I care for Mrs. Parigoridi, because she cares for me too. We've been friends for so long and no cloud has ever darkened… well, to cut a long story short. 'Uncle[1] Iancu,' she says. Which, to be honest, I don't particularly like… About forty years ago, when I was a prompter at the theatre, women used to call me 'Iancu,' or some of them even 'Hey, Iancu' – no respect really! Then, about twenty years later, they started calling me 'Mr. Iancu.' When I got to be a director, they addressed me as 'Dear Mr. Director…' And now, after another twenty years, they all – i.e. those of them with whom I'm still friends – just wouldn't stop calling me 'Uncle Iancu.' Everybody in the civil service would advance – only I get demoted regularly, every ten years! From the 'hey' of the old days (accompanied by the odd poke and all sort of other rough treatments… once one of them went as far as to slap me for, I swear, nothing… who knows what she imagined!), as I was saying, from the old 'hey' I've got to be addressed with 'uncle' – and most respectfully too. Needless to say, I don't like it since I've never in my whole life been that proud as to care so much about my women friends' respect… But anyway! That's the way the cookie crumbles! If nothing else but respect is available, one has to be content with that too – with respect! It's not all that bad after all; even if we don't get slapped anymore – which, undoubtedly, is not nice at all; but it doesn't hurt terribly much either… so to speak. But let us leave all these, which are – or were rather – but trifles, and let us think of the future: what am I to do about Mrs. Parigoridi? Today's Thursday; the day after, on Saturday, I have to turn up at the SPDRM and 2.30 p.m. for… You may wonder what this SPDRM is.… - Well, SPDRM means 'The Society for the Protection of the Daco-Roman Muses.' My friend, Mrs. Parigoridi, is vice-president of the SPDRM; in fact one could rightfully say she's the president since the actual one, the venerable Mrs. Trahanache, is in Paris most of the time and is also, as the vice-president would put it, 'decrepit'; and if Mrs. Parigoridi wasn't there to see to everything, 'the SP… would go to hell…' And if the SP went, what would become of the DRM? It's two weeks since posters, newspapers, letters, and all sort of persons have been announcing that I am to deliver a speech at the SPDRM on What Is Art? And I'm living as if underground – or as if I knew for certain that the end of the world would take place before the day after tomorrow… But it's time I pulled myself together. Today's Thursday… only two nights to go and, before the third, I have to deliver, I have to! On the night of Thursday to Friday I sleep badly… I feel feverish… I while Friday away, pacing to and fro without any destination… I can't eat; my pulse is irregular; I'm overwhelmed by an incomprehensible fear; when walking I feel as if I was stepping onto a void…I feel like running to the station, getting on the first train, and fleeing to Canada where, unknown, I would work to make an honourable living, far from all SP etc. But I don't have enough courage to do that. I keep wandering all day desperately looking for a corner where I would not see the poster with What Is Art? In vain!… I return home exhausted… Friday to Saturday… I can't sleep… At four in the morning I jump out of bed annoyed beyond the widest measure… Which? Which is the least painful and most effective way to commit suicide? Let's see… …Die this young? My God! What will my friend, Mrs. Parigoridi, say when she reads in Universul about the tragic suicide of her uncle Iancu?! No!… To have this kind of courage means to be a coward! And the last thing I would want is Mrs. Parigoridi thinking that her uncle Iancu has been a coward! I care for my friend's opinion even more than for my own death, so to speak… No! One cannot give up life. Man is the pinnacle of creation; he has to be patient and wait in dignity to be dethroned. Six o'clock in the morning… Aurora with her rosy fingers has finally opened the gates of the orient. I get dressed and scurry towards the shop of my friend, Mr. Florian, who has promised that he will, by all means, finish my patent leather boots for the speech today. The morning air does me good… Another poster! What Is Art? I rush into the shop that Mr. Florian opened even before Aurora with her rosy fingers… The boots are ready and they fit me perfectly; they couldn't work more wonderfully: the squeeze in the right one is compensated by the looseness of the left one; but my, are they elegant! 'You've got a beautiful craft now, don't you, master Florian!' 'Quite so, I can't say no; but a most difficult and meticulous one it is too…' 'Well, tell me one that isn't!' says I. '… And requires a lot… Can you just imagine, sir, how much we need to get to a pair of boots as elegant as these?' 'I can indeed…' '…Here is what we need: a herd of oxen and calves, an oak forest and one of poplars, an acre of hemp and one of flax, a field of wheat, an iron mine, and God knows how much more!' 'I don't get it…' 'What do you mean? Don't we need lasts, soles, vamps, lining, thread, glue paste, nails, tools?… and then, what else do we need? Let's see, can you guess?' I thought about it for a few moments and then, looking my friend Florian, who was waiting smilingly for my answer, in the eyes, I said: 'Then of course we need the mind and strength that, of all these scattered all over the world, should prepare the materials…' 'And then?' 'Then… then, we by all means need the shoemaker, our friend Florian, whose deftness could make a pair of elegant boots.' On those last words I jumped from the chair, embraced my friend, and, kissing him enthusiastically, cried at him: 'Enough, Master Florian! I've got it! May you live long! You're my saviour, so to speak.' Calmness embodied, I turn up at the SPDRM at 2 p.m. The ladies from the committee led by the vice-president welcome me very warmly. The hall is full to capacity. I mount to the rostrum, on a platform, my back to a wall on which are painted the nine Muses in picturesque Romanian folk costumes. Had I known in advance, I would have also come dressed like a shepherd playing three flutes – one made of elder – playing so tender, one carved so neat in bone – playing so sweet, of beech wood the third – the loveliest you've heard[2] –, a national Apollo. Seated in the first row of chairs, Mrs. Parigoridi makes a graceful gesture with her glove: we're ready, that is. Proceed, uncle Iancu, there you go! 'Ladies,' says I, 'I must ask your forgiveness for daring, in front of such a select audience, to try within the confines of my weak powers to answer a most difficult question, one that the human spirit has been asking for many a century, namely: "What is art?"' (Applause.) 'The famous disciple of the immortal Plato, Aristotle – the brilliant philosopher born in Stagyra, Stavros today, in Macedonia, in 384, dead in Chalchis, Eubea, in 322 BC; also known as "the prince of philosophers"; the founder of the famous peripatetic school; the tutor of the prodigious Alexander the Great; Aristotle, as I was saying, once met a simpleton of the kind that looks down on lofty knowledge and is always out to mock at serious and wise men – one of those precious blockheads that can be found in all places and at all times, who get blasé before enjoying any of the good things of this world and who are like some guts (pardon my French) that feel nauseous not because of overfeeding but because of not being fed at all.' (Applause. Great amusement.) 'And so, the simpleton, out to tease "the prince of philosophers", asked him: "Tell me, oh great one, what is beauty?" And the great one answered: "My friend, this is a question that only a blind man can ask."' (Stormy applause. Cheers, not for the prince of philosophers.) 'Let us return then, most esteemed ladies, after this short introduction, to the object of our conference and ask ourselves: "What is art?"'  Space not permitting here to quote my speech at length, I'll confine myself to give a general outline of it: 'A herd of oxen and calves… Grazing… Grass… … Oak forest, where the sun rays cannot possibly dare… … A wheat field… Beautiful is the nature of our country when it does not let its elements loose furiously, for then it is terrible, if we could possibly…. … A crop of hemp, another one of flax… let us remember that we are essentially a farming country…' (Applause. Repeated bravos.) … A mountain, the Carpathian, that hides in its depths iron treasures… Not to mention the oil, this coal syrup, if we could possibly… I may then be told that the national industry should not be encouraged… Il ne nous manquerait plus que cela! (or, in translation: that's all we need!)' (Shattering applause.) … Let us take a concrete example, my ladies, a thing we come across at every step we take… let us take a pair of patent leather boots, like mine…' (The orator descends from the rostrum to the front of the platform and, raising his feet, one after the other, he shows his new boots, and then he mounts back. Laughter. Enthusiastic applause.) '…Well, my dear ladies, do you know how much we need, besides patience, to get to have such an elegant pair of patent leather boots? For, whatever one may say, it is a difficult and meticulous business, if we think of all the materials scattered in nature by our Creator's will, to come, after our own need and intention, to have…' (Deafening applause. The orator stops, wipes his forehead and waits, smiling, for the cheers to end. The cheers end.) …Finally, to finish, my ladies, I'll once again answer our question: …What is art? …Art is, how should we put this?, the attempt of the human spirit to satisfy a great need of the human spirit… that needs, in order to be satisfied, a satisfaction coming from another spirit that, in its turn… well, yes, finally…. (The orator has, probably because of the tiredness of his too concentrated spirit, a moment of dizziness. Warm applause resuscitates him.) …Aristotle himself could not have said more than that… And whoever might be trying to say more would no doubt speak nonsense just like our young blockhead, who had tried to put the illustrious philosopher, the forefather of our Macedonian brothers, in difficulty with a stupid question!' (Peak of enthusiasm. All ladies stand up. Endless cheers. Fanaticism.) Ugh! An hour and a half! What a heat! I'm all a sweat… On my way out the ladies from the SPDRM committee thank me warmly, giving me flowers and praising me, one more enthusiastically than the other: 'Well done, uncle Iancu!' And the vice-president, my friend, Mrs. Parigoridi, whispers: 'All right! Nice legs you pulled up there, uncle!' And stretches out her hand. I kiss it and answer, in an even lower voice: 'Merci for the compliment my niece!…But really, is it the hand your stretching out to me? What am I, a glove maker? You should be stretching something else to a shoemaker.' 'Cheeky as always, uncle Iancu, cheeky as always!'
[1] Nene in Romanian, a form of address, usually to an older person, very frequently used by Caragiale. His fondness of the term has not only endowed it with ironical overtones that have survived in the Romanian language ever since, but has even earned him the name of 'Nenea Iancu,' by which he is still often referred to. [2] Reference to Mioriţa, a famous Romanian folk ballad.

by I. L. Caragiale (1852-1912)