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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Extra Leaf on Consolation

By Jean Paul (J. P. F. Richter) (1763–1825)

From ‘Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces’: Translation of Edward Henry Noel

A TIME will come—that is, must come—when we shall be commanded by morality not only to cease tormenting others, but also ourselves. A time must come when man, even on earth, shall wipe away most of his tears, were it only from pride.

Nature indeed draws tears out of the eyes, and sighs out of the breast, so quickly that the wise man can never wholly lay aside the garb of mourning from his body; but let his soul wear none. For as it is ever a merit to bear a small suffering with cheerfulness, so must the calm and patient endurance of the worst be a merit, and will only differ in being a greater one; as the same reason which is valid for the forgiveness of small injuries is equally valid for the forgiveness of the greatest.

The first thing that we have to contend against and despise, in sorrow as in anger, is its poisonous, enervating sweetness, which we are so loath to exchange for the labor of consoling ourselves, and to drive away by the effort of reason.

We must not exact of philosophy, that with one stroke of the pen it shall reverse the transformation of Rubens, who with one stroke of his brush changed a laughing child into a weeping one. It is enough if it change the full mourning of the soul into half-mourning; it is enough if I can say to myself,—I will be content to endure the sorrow that philosophy has left me: without it, it would be greater, and the gnat’s bite would be a wasp’s sting.

Even physical pain shoots its sparks upon us out of the electrical condenser of the imagination. We could endure the most acute pangs calmly, if they only lasted the sixtieth part of a second; but in fact we never have to endure an hour of pain, but only a succession of the sixtieth parts of a second, the sixty beams of which are collected into the burning focus of a second, and directed upon our nerves by the imagination alone. The most painful part of our bodily pain is that which is bodiless or immaterial,—namely, our impatience, and the delusion that it will last forever.

There is many a loss over which we all know for certain that we shall no longer grieve in twenty—ten—two years. Why do we not say to ourselves,—I will at once then, to-day, throw away an opinion which I shall abandon in twenty years? Why should I be able to abandon errors of twenty years’ standing, and not of twenty hours?

When I awake from a dream which has painted an Otaheite for me on the dark ground of the night, and find the flowery land melted away, I scarcely sigh, thinking to myself, “It was only a dream.” Why is it that if I had really possessed this island while awake, and it had been swallowed up by an earthquake,—why is it that I do not then exclaim, “The island was only a dream”? Wherefore am I more inconsolable at the loss of a longer dream than at the loss of a shorter,—for that is the difference; and why does man find a great loss less probable, and less a matter of necessity when it occurs, than a small one?

The reason is, that every sentiment and every emotion is mad, and exacts and builds its own world. A man can vex himself that it is already, or only, twelve o’clock. What folly! The mood not only exacts its own world, its own individual consciousness, but its own time. I beg every one to let his passions, for once, speak out plainly within himself, and to probe and question them to the bottom, as to what they really desire. He will be terror-struck at the enormity of these hitherto only half-muttered wishes. Anger wishes that all mankind had only one neck; love, that it had only one heart; grief, two tear-glands; pride, two bent knees.