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We were brought up together; there was not quite a year difference in our ages. I need not say that we were strangers to any species of disunion or dispute. Harmony was the soul of our companionship, and the diversity and contrast that subsisted in our characters drew us nearer together. Elizabeth was of a calmer and more concentrated disposition; but, with all my ardour, I was capable of a more intense application and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge. She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home — the sublime shapes of the mountains, the changes of the seasons, tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summers — she found ample scope for admiration and delight. While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.

On the birth of a second son, my junior by seven years, my parents gave up entirely their wandering life and fixed themselves in their native country. We possessed a house in Geneva, and a campagne on Belrive, the eastern shore of the lake, at the distance of rather more than a league from the city. We resided principally in the latter, and the lives of my parents were passed in considerable seclusion. It was my temper to avoid a crowd and to attach myself fervently to a few. I was indifferent, therefore, to my school-fellows in general; but I united myself in the bonds of the closest friendship to one among them. Henry Clerval was the son of a merchant of Geneva. He was a boy of singular talent and fancy. He loved enterprise, hardship, and even danger for its own sake. He was deeply read in books of chivalry and romance. He composed heroic songs and began to write many a tale of enchantment and knightly adventure. He tried to make us act plays and to enter into masquerades, in which the characters were drawn from the heroes of Roncesvalles, of the Round Table of King Arthur, and the chivalrous train who shed their blood to redeem the holy sepulchre from the hands of the infidels.

No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence. We felt that they were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed. When I mingled with other families I distinctly discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lot was, and gratitude assisted the development of filial love.

My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately. I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

Meanwhile Clerval occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral relations of things. The busy stage of life, the virtues of heroes, and the actions of men were his theme; and his hope and his dream was to become one among those whose names are recorded in story as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species. The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract; I might have become sullen in my study, through the ardour of my nature, but that she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness. And Clerval — could aught ill entrench on the noble spirit of Clerval? Yet he might not have been so perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his generosity, so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for adventurous exploit, had she not unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition.

I feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mind and changed its bright visions of extensive usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflections upon self. Besides, in drawing the picture of my early days, I also record those events which led, by insensible steps, to my after tale of misery, for when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion which afterwards ruled my destiny I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys. Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate; I desire, therefore, in this narration, to state those facts which led to my predilection for that science. When I was thirteen years of age we all went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Thonon; the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind, and bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father. My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book and said, “Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.”

If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical, under such circumstances I should certainty have thrown Agrippa aside and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies. It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents, and I continued to read with the greatest avidity. When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself. I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers, I always came from my studies discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth. Those of his successors in each branch of natural philosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared even to my boy’s apprehensions as tyros engaged in the same pursuit.

The untaught peasant beheld the elements around him and was acquainted with their practical uses. The most learned philosopher knew little more. He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery. He might dissect, anatomize, and give names; but, not to speak of a final cause, causes in their secondary and tertiary grades were utterly unknown to him. I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly I had repined.

But here were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and knew more. I took their word for all that they averred, and I became their disciple. It may appear strange that such should arise in the eighteenth century; but while I followed the routine of education in the schools of Geneva, I was, to a great degree, self-taught with regard to my favourite studies. My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with a child’s blindness, added to a student’s thirst for knowledge. Under the guidance of my new preceptors I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention. Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death! Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors. And thus for a time I was occupied by exploded systems, mingling, like an unadept, a thousand contradictory theories and floundering desperately in a very slough of multifarious knowledge, guided by an ardent imagination and childish reasoning, till an accident again changed the current of my ideas. When I was about fifteen years old we had retired to our house near Belrive, when we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura, and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity. On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me. All that he said threw greatly into the shade Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, the lords of my imagination; but by some fatality the overthrow of these men disinclined me to pursue my accustomed studies. It seemed to me as if nothing would or could ever be known. All that had so long engaged my attention suddenly grew despicable. By one of those caprices of the mind which we are perhaps most subject to in early youth, I at once gave up my former occupations, set down natural history and all its progeny as a deformed and abortive creation, and entertained the greatest disdain for a would-be science which could never even step within the threshold of real knowledge. In this mood of mind I betook myself to the mathematics and the branches of study appertaining to that science as being built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of my consideration.

Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin. When I look back, it seems to me as if this almost miraculous change of inclination and will was the immediate suggestion of the guardian angel of my life — the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars and ready to envelop me. Her victory was announced by an unusual tranquillity and gladness of soul which followed the relinquishing of my ancient and latterly tormenting studies. It was thus that I was to be taught to associate evil with their prosecution, happiness with their disregard.

It was a strong effort of the spirit of good, but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.

我回家后,做的第一件事情就是把科纳柳斯·阿格里帕的所有著作都找出来,既而是帕拉赛尔瑟斯和阿尔贝特斯·玛格努斯的著作。我狂热、欣喜地阅读着这些作家的著作,他们对我来说就像是别人尚不知晓的宝藏一般。我已经描述过自己,说我一直都怀有一种渴望,想参透大自然的各种奥秘。尽管当代的科学家们已经付出了艰辛的劳动,并且有了伟大的发现,但是我总是对此不甚满足。据说艾萨克·牛顿爵士曾经坦言,说他觉得自己就像在一个浩瀚无边、尚无人涉足的真理的海洋边上拾贝壳的小孩。而那些在自然科学领域中的不同分支学科中继续研究的牛顿爵士的后继者们,以及那些我已知晓的科学家们,即便从我当时只是一个孩子的头脑来看,也都是一些拾贝壳的初学者。

那些没有文化的农民,通过对环境的观察,也能掌握自然界的一定规律,并为其所用,而那些最渊博的科学家知道的也不比农民多。科学家们只不过揭开了大自然真面目的一部分而已,但是大自然生生不息,永远是一个神秘莫测的谜团。科学家们也许可以分析、解剖,并给各种现象命名,但是,这根本没有触及到大自然的本质因素,就不要说终极的本质了,就连一些更表面更浅显的因素,科学家们也是一无所知的。以前,我就是这样盯住那些阻碍人们真正进入自然界神秘殿堂的堡垒和沟壑不放,烦躁而又无知地冲着现代科学发牢骚。

但是我拥有了这样几本书,这些作者对世界看得更深刻,知道得更多。我把他们的每句话都奉为经典,成为他们最忠实的信徒。在十八世纪发生这样的事情看起来是匪夷所思的,但是当我在日内瓦的学校接受教育的时候,我很大程度是通过自学来研究那些我爱好的学科的。

我父亲并没有很高的科学素养,所以没有人可以引导我走出孩子式的盲目,并把我作为一个学生对知识的渴求善加利用。于是在我的新导师的指导下,我全身心地投入到对水晶球和长生不老药的研究上,而且后者很快就吸引了我全部的注意力。对我来说,财富是次要的,但是如果我能够使人类免除疾病,并且使人类除了死亡之外,能够对任何伤害刀枪不入的话,那么,这将是多么了不起的成就啊!

我想的还不仅仅是这些。我最喜爱的那些作者还大胆宣称,他们还可以召唤鬼魂,这是我最迫切寻求的能力。而且,哪怕我的法术始终未能成功,我也总是归咎于自己功力不够,或者因为别的错误,我从不怀疑我的导师是否具有真材实料。

就这样,在一段时间里,我全身心地钻在这些被推翻了理论里,用我狂热的想象力和幼稚的推理,不懂装懂的硬是把上千种互相矛盾的理论掺在一起,然后在一堆七拼八凑起来的知识的泥潭里无望地挣扎,直到一个突发事件,再次改变了我的想法。

我十五岁那年,我们全家搬回了贝尔日维湖边的老房子,在那里,我们目睹了一场最可怕的大暴雨。暴雨从朱拉山脉后面向我们席卷而来,雷声从四面八方在我们头上炸响。在整个过程中,我都充满好奇和兴奋地观察着这场暴雨。当时我站在门口,突然,我看见离我家房子大约二十码远的一株美丽的老橡树上,腾空升起一束火焰。当眩目的火光熄灭后,橡树已经消失了,原地只剩下被劈得四分五裂的树桩。第二天早晨,我们出去看那棵橡树,发现橡树被劈开的样子非常特别。它不是被雷劈成碎片,而是完全被炸得粉碎。我还从来没有见过有什么东西被摧毁得这样彻底。

此前,我对比这个更显而易见得电力学原理也并不是一无所知。发生这场雷暴雨的时候,正好有一位对自然科学研究得颇有心得的先生和我们在一起。这场灾难令他兴奋不已,他向我解释了他形成的一套电学和流电学的理论。他的这套新理论对我来说如醍醐灌顶,使得科纳柳斯·阿格里帕、帕拉赛尔瑟斯和阿尔贝斯特·玛格努斯这些我想象中的主宰顿时黯然失色。

但是这可能就是我的劫数。这些人的理论被颠覆后,我再也不愿意去从事原来自然科学的研究了。对我来说,万物似乎永远都只能是未知的谜。那些这么长时间以来一直占据着我头脑的东西,突然变得一无是处。

可能是因为年轻人所特有的变化无常、喜新厌旧的特点,我立刻放弃了以前的研究,把自然科学及其一切成果,都贬低为畸形、夭折的生命,而且非常轻蔑地认为这些学科只是所谓的科学,永远都不能登上真理的大雅之堂。在这种情绪和心理状态下,我又开始钻研数学,及其相关学科,因为我认为这些学科有坚实稳固的基础,尚值得我考虑。

我们的灵魂真是非常奇特,毫厘之间的差异,就决定了我们的人生之路是走向辉煌还是毁灭。我现在回头想来,我的爱好和意志当时所发生的奇迹般的变化,似乎源自我生命中的守护神的提点——这是我的守护神所做的最后的努力,希冀我能够躲开已经悬在我的头上,随时会把我吞没的灾难。

神灵的努力取得了成功,在我放弃了原来的,以后又重新折磨我的那些研究之后,我的内心充满了不同寻常的宁静和快乐。神灵想要指点我的是,从事这些研究就意味着邪恶,而放弃它们就意味着幸福。

神灵的努力虽然效果强烈,但却未能持久。命运不可违抗,它不可更改的规律注定我将必然遭到可怕的灭顶之灾。