Correspondence

Illusion and Reality, Then and Now

Years ago—so long ago indeed that I hesitate to record the date—a wise lady of Hungarian origin said to me in Vienna: "Oh, to be able to see Venice again for the first time!" It was one of those casual remarks which, behind the smiling mask of a truism, reveals a hidden, monitory depth.

Contrary to what Thomas Jefferson and many other 18th-century optimists believed, human happiness is not something that can be methodically pursued. In its supreme forms or visitations, where it approaches or attains the pinnacle of ecstasy, it is a delicious surprise, a "gift of the gods," and for all of us that blessed moment when the expectation is equaled or surpassed by the attainment. It is that magic instant, so delicately evoked by Joyce, when on the occasion of his first kiss, his autobiographical hero, Stephen Daedalus, experienced with a thrill the "soft, sweet swoon of sin." It is that extraordinary moment in the life of a young male, described by Stendhal with such psychological penetration in Le Rouge et le Noir, when for the first time an adolescent proves his virility with the trembling consent of his female partner.

In citing these two examples, I do not wish to suggest that the "firstness" of any truly happy experience is limited to erotic pleasure—which fortunately for all of us is not the case. It is simply because Venice—the serenissima...

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