Sometimes he went to a big drawer in his dresser, where he kept his finished manuscripts, and took them out and looked over them, and read parts of them aloud, and talked of the plans he had had for them, and how one idea after another had been followed for a time and had failed to satisfy him in the end.
Two fiction schemes that had always possessed him he had been unable to bring to any conclusion. Both of these have been mentioned in former chapters; one being the notion of a long period of dream-existence during a brief moment of sleep, and the other being the story of a mysterious visitant from another realm. He had experimented with each of these ideas in no less than three forms, and there was fine writing and dramatic narrative in all; but his literary architecture had somehow fallen short of his conception. "The Mysterious Stranger" in one of its forms I thought might be satisfactorily concluded, and he admitted that he could probably end it without much labor. He discussed something of his plans, and later I found the notes for its conclusion. But I suppose he was beyond the place where he could take up those old threads, though he contemplated, fondly enough, the possibility, and recalled how he had read at least one form of the dream tale to Howells, who had urged him to complete it.
ASTRONOMY AND DREAMS
August 5, 1909. This morning I noticed on a chair a copy of Flaubert's Salammbo which I recently lent him. I asked if he liked it.
"No," he said, "I didn't like any of it."
"But you read it?"
"Yes, I read every line of it."
"You admitted its literary art?"
"Well, it's like this: If I should go to the Chicago stockyards and they should kill a beef and cut it up and the blood should splash all over everything, and then they should take me to another pen and kill another beef and the blood should splash over everything again, and so on to pen after pen, I should care for it about as much as I do for that book."
"But those were bloody days, and you care very much for that period in history."
"Yes, that is so. But when I read Tacitus and know that I am reading history I can accept it as such and supply the imaginary details and enjoy it, but this thing is such a continuous procession of blood and slaughter and stench it worries me. It has great art--I can see that. That scene of the crucified lions and the death canon and the tent scene are marvelous, but I wouldn't read that book again without a salary."
August 16. He is reading Suetonius, which he already knows by heart--so full of the cruelties and licentiousness of imperial Rome.
This afternoon he began talking about Claudius.
"They called Claudius a lunatic," he said, "but just see what nice fancies he had. He would go to the arena between times and have captives and wild beasts brought out and turned in together for his special enjoyment. Sometimes when there were no captives on hand he would say, 'Well, never mind; bring out a carpenter.' Carpentering around the arena wasn't a popular job in those days. He went visiting once to a province and thought it would be pleasant to see how they disposed of criminals and captives in their crude, old-fashioned way, but there was no executioner on hand. No matter; the Emperor of Rome was in no hurry--he would wait. So he sat down and stayed there until an executioner came."
I said, "How do you account for the changed attitude toward these things? We are filled with pity to-day at the thought of torture and suffering."
"Ah! but that is because we have drifted that way and exercised the quality of compassion. Relax a muscle and it soon loses its vigor; relax that quality and in two generations--in one generation--we should be gloating over the spectacle of blood and torture just the same. Why, I read somewhere a letter written just before the Lisbon catastrophe in 1755 about a scene on the public square of Lisbon: A lot of stakes with the fagots piled for burning and heretics chained for burning.