Sunday, 25 January 2009

Book of Emblems

Photograph by Celeste Romero Cano

"Evidement, some of those books that the Church feared so much were not destroyed. I asked your father if he possessed any other inscribed with this crest. He couldn't say for sure, but welcomed me to come to the estate and look for myself. But now I have got ahead of myself, because the reason he brought me the Iconologia was that it corresponded with his playing cards."

My uncle produced a pack of worn cards that must have been kept near the book on his shelf. It was a large pack of seventy-eight cards, their reverse face covered in the same blue and white lozenged pattern that appeared in the Palatine crest, opposite the lions. The faces were illustrated with strange emblematic figures, some annotated with numbers. I clutched them, trying to imagine them in the hands of my father.

"I rarely saw him without that pack of cards, and he would often take them out and shuffle them while talking about other matters. They kept his hands as busy as his thoughts. I never saw another pack like them, but he said he they were played just as one played tarocchi, which is now all the rage across the world. He showed me that the images on his cards has been copied, albeit crudely, from the figures in the Iconologia. Look, here you see, this is the highest card, the Fool, and in Ripa you find Pazzia, Folly, the man in a long black garment lauging at the sky and riding a hobby-horse with a whirligig in one hand. And here you see, the next card, The World, an image of Pan, that goat-faced, sun-burnt devil who signifies the universe, whose horns are the sun and the moon."

The book was filled with mysterious images, many more than appeared on the deck of cards. Blindness of the Mind, Dignity, Avarice, Ingenuity, A Haughty Beggar, Exile, Poetical Fury, Scandal, Love of Country and Love of Virtue, Quarreling, Prudence, Temperance and Theft, Youth and Death were all illustrated with figures of extraordinary aspect, dressed and undressed like gods, accompanied or pursued by a bestiary of creatures, and a panoply of stage props in their hands: jagged thunderbolts, balances and squares, flaming brands and quivers of arrows, birds and wreaths, miniature suns and stars. It was an illustrated catalogue of ideas, passions, desires, sins and virtues, personified in a population of tiny men and women. My heart leaped, because they made concrete all the confused and vaporous feelings that churned in my own breast, portraits of those pangs of guilt and jealousy, happy joy and desperation that were my daily companions. And I wondered how my father could ever have surrendered a book as magical and powerful as this. I gripped the pack of cards in my hands. These were mine by right. He had left me nothing else. I took the book and laid it on the floor before my Uncle's chair, and spread the cards around it, studying the miniature universe that opened before me as my uncle continued his tale.

"Yolande, your father told me he had been given these cards by a foreigner with whom he played every month, and who taught him the rules of the game. There are seventy-eight cards, every one different, with twenty-one atouts and four suits of fourteen cards. You see there is le roi, la dame, le cavalier, and le valet. The highest card is called the excuse, the fool. The atouts and the excuse are worth four and a half points, so are the kings; the queens three and half, the knights two and a half, the knaves one and a half and all the other numbered cards worth half a point each. Eighteen cards are dealt to each player and six to the centre of the table, face down. These six cards are called le chien. I'll show you if you give me the cards, Yolande."

"I want to hear about my father," I said, refusing the return the cards.

Uncle Adraste sighed and sat back in his armchair. He watched me lay out the cards in patterns on the floor for a while, then continued.

"Your father wanted me to help him interpret the meaning of the cards with the help of that book. He thought that the cards were dealt in an order that held some significance and that he lost to his opponent because he was unable to grasp it. I said that if the cards were shuffled randomly, there was unlikely to be any significance in how they appeared. 'And yet,' your father said to me, 'the man studies his cards as if he were reading a book, with a smile of understanding on his face, and he wins game after game. I have played cards since I was a boy, and I am not a fool who believes Fortune smiles upon any man over another for so long. I have observed a losing man will play with care and attention: it is the winning man who is most in peril because he comes to believe he cannot lose. But my opponent does not gloat or boast. He plays his cards with . . . curiosity. And never loses.'

"I asked your father if the man was not a cheat. He said, 'Even if I thought so, I would not say so to his face, and he has gone to great pains to allay any suspicion. You see, he has given me his own cards to study. We play with no other pack. I can find nothing wrong with them, or anything in his rules that would favour one player above another.'

" 'And who is this man you cannot beat?'

"Your father looked at his feet and brushed his coat with his hand. 'I beg you not ask me that. He is noble. He is foreign. And he has done me a boon in the past, obliging me only to keep our acquaintance from public knowledge, and to meet him every month for our game.'

" 'How strange!'

" 'That is not the only curious thing about him. He is no stranger in any of the salons, welcome wherever he goes, very gracious in his manner and very witty in his observations. Yet no one knows the first thing about him, and his name never arises in society. The man is an enigma, a cipher, and I cannot afford to lose to such a man forever. I have observed you these past months, Sir, and I should say there is no scholar in Paris who knows his books as well as you do. I pray you help me discover the secret language this man reads in the random arrangement of these emblems. My resources, such as they are, are at your disposal, Sir.'

"Your father spoke so courteously and with such passion, I would never think of refusing his request however odd it might seem. But I am ashamed to say my thoughts were on that library of your grandfather's, and the books with the crest of the Palatine Library." Indeed my uncle looked as if he were admitting to a grievous and shameful vice, and he shook his head slowly. "I am no scholar, but as you know, Yolande, books are doors to the souls of men, windows to their profoundest thoughts, carriages that transport us to other lands and distant ages. I can no more resist a book than a gambler can resist a wager or an ivrogne his bottle. Wise men say knowledge is a dangerous thing. That is just. But a life without books, that is unthinkable!"

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