By Cynthia Chung
The Ghost Seer first appeared in several instalments in Schiller’s publication journal Thalia from 1787 to 1789, and was later published as a three-volume book. It was the one of the most popular works of Schiller’s during his lifetime. People were attracted by the subject of mysticism, apparitions and the horrifying unknown. It is for this very reason, that the Ghost Seer is actually one of the most misunderstood stories by Schiller, who was not only intervening on such peaked interests of the time but, more importantly, was meant as a warning for those who mistook a real villain for something that could only exist in the mysterious ghoulish world of the supernatural.
Before we go further in elaborating on this, I think it is important that we first have some context of the environment that Schiller has chosen to tell this tale. The story is set without specifics, that is we don’t know the exact year or names of persons since the story is being told by a character named Count O (we are only given the first letter of his name) who has chosen to leave out these details, and we are told that the story is set sometime in the 1700s in Venice.
Since the entire story is set within Venice, I think it important that we know about what kind of city Venice was.
Venice, for all its influence, wealth and power, was contained on a small little island in the lagoons and marshes of the northern Adriatic Sea. It was founded through an emigration of leading Roman families after the western empire’s collapse around 700 AD. Venice did not have a strong or large naval defense. Rather their most efficient defense was the fact that they were located in the middle of a swamp. Not only this, but Venice was rather adept in the art of espionage and was a center for the highest level of intelligence gathering within Europe. This allowed them to frequently have the upper hand in manipulating foreign policy.
In addition, Venice was a very powerful banking center of Europe. The Venetian bankers, often called Lombards, began to loot many parts of Europe with usurious loans at 120-180% interest. In 1345, the biggest financial crash in history hit Europe. The Venetian controlled Peruzzi and Bardi family banks had overextended themselves in loans, primarily to King Edward III in his cause against the French which would end up as the ‘Hundred Years War’, when King Edward III repudiated his war debts in 1343 to all foreign banks, the already overly-extended Bardi and Peruzzi banks could not sustain themselves for much longer and in 1345 led Europe into what would become the peak period of the dark age.
The oligarchical families in Venice would become extremely rich off of this system, and stored much of their family fortune, called the fondo, within the Basilica of St. Mark, which functioned like a Venetian state treasury and would absorb the family fortunes of nobles who died without heirs. It was fairly frequent in Venice that nobles would die under mysterious circumstances or be assumed dead but the body never found.
The canals of Venice were well known for being full of such bodies, which the murky water kept hidden for the most part.
The best way to understand Venice, was that its power was centered in pitting their enemies against each other. Venice had developed such a reputation for this that by 1508, there would be an agreement between France, Spain, Germany, the Papacy, Milan, Florence, Savoy, Mantua, Ferrara and others to form a league to dismember Venice, called the League of Cambrai. Unfortunately, Venice was conniving enough to corrupt certain members of this league with the promises of massive wealth and influence such that just as the league had the fate of Venice in its hands, its members started to turn on each other and Venice survived.
It is important for us to especially understand as it is one of the main themes of the Ghost Seer, the outlook of the free thinker, represented by the spirituali. The free thinkers are Aristotelian based, and hold the belief that reason lies in the methodology of logically based induction and deduction. That the universe is a mechanism, discoverable by a few simple laws. Free thinkers, which ultimately shaped the period known as the Enlightenment, emphasized individualism, skepticism and ‘science’ reduced to the confines of empiricism and agnosticism.
This school of thought was in direct opposition to the Platonic school, which characterised the Renaissance as a cultural intellectual movement known as platonic humanism. Platonic humanism would revive the study of ancient Greek and Roman thought. It began and achieved fruition first in Italy, and its predecessors, were such men as Dante and Petrarch. Renaissance humanism had set out to help humankind break free from the mental strictures imposed by religious orthodoxy and to inspire instead free inquiry and criticism and a new confidence in the possibilities of human thought and its potential creations.
Though timelines like this are common in classrooms today they grossly misrepresent how ideas have and will shape our past, present and future. An idea never just dies on a certain date, but rather can go through countless rebirths. Those who upheld the principles of renaissance humanism, or platonic humanism didn’t just all decide to become a free-thinker, or an aristotelean humanist after a certain date. As we can see from the use still today to describe them as either platonic or aristotelean this opposition between these two schools of thought has existed for centuries. In fact, Florence to this day has remained a Renaissance based city and Venice the base of the Enlightenment.
What was this opposition between both schools? Centrally, it is on Aristotle’s assertion that slavery is a necessary institution, as he clearly expresses in his Politics:
“But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?
There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”– Aristotle’s Politics Part V
Aristotle also reduced the question of human knowledge to the crudest sense certainty and perception of “facts” as he also showcases in the above statement, in his approach to the justification of slavery as a “fact”. From this sour core stems all of its pestilent growths in its philosophical shapings.
It was Dante and Petrarch who laid the basis for the Italian Renaissance in the midst of the crisis in the 1300s. This effort was continued by Nicolaus of Cusa, Pope Pius II, and the Medici-sponsored Council of Florence in 1439. Counter to this, the Venetians promoted the philosophy of Aristotle against the Platonism of the Florentines, and the University of Padua became the great European center for Aristotelian studies.
Pius II, who was Pope from 1458-1464, was an ally of Nicolas of Cusa and the platonic humanist movement. He would help Cusa in organising the Council of Florence (1431-1449) as an attempt to unite the eastern and western churches.
Pius II had said of the Venetians: “they wish to appear Christians before the world, but in reality they never think of God and, except for the state, which they do regard as a deity, they hold nothing sacred.” [Pius II Commentaries, p. 743]
Though the League of Cambrai ultimately failed, it came very close to destroying Venice and Venice suffered greatly financially as a result. As a reaction to this, a decision was made by Venetian intelligence to pit Protestants and Catholics against each other. The goal was to divide Europe for centuries in religious wars that would prevent any combination like the League of Cambrai from ever again being assembled against Venice.
Gasparo Contarini was a cardinal based in Venice during this time. He was a pupil of the Aristotelean Padua school, and denied the immortality of the human soul. In 1943, an interesting find was made by a German scholar named Hubert Jedin within the Camaldolese monastery of Monte Corona…30 letters from Gasparo Contarini that show without a doubt that Contarini was organising Protestant circles in Italy despite being a Catholic and a cardinal at that. In other words, he was caught fanning the fire from both sides.
As is well-known, Martin Luther is responsible for the formation of Protestantism in 1517 which was launched in Germany. To give us an idea of why this is relevant to Venice’s design let us read an excerpt from Contarini. When he returned to Venice in 1525 from his mission with Charles V in Germany, he told the Senate:
“The character and customs of the Germans are close to feral; they are robust and courageous in war; they have little regard for death; they are suspicious but not fraudulent or malicious; they are not sublimely intelligent, but they apply themselves with so much determination and perseverance that they succeed as well in various manual crafts as they do in letters, in which many are now devoting themselves and make great profit…. The forces of Germany, if they were unified, would be very great, but because of the divisions which exist among them, they are only small….” [Alberi, p. 21]
Venetian publishing houses and networks would now work to spread Lutheranism and its variants all over Germany in order to perpetuate and exacerbate these divisions.
As stated in the article “Venice’s War vs Western Civilization“:
“As the Counter-Reformation advanced, the Contarini networks split into two wings. One was the pro-Protestant spirituali, who later evolved into the party of the Venetian oligarchy called the giovani, [who would become known as the free-thinkers] and who serviced growing networks in France, Holland, England, and Scotland. On the other wing were the zelanti, oriented toward repression and the Inquisition, and typified by Pope Paul IV Caraffa. The zelanti evolved into the oligarchical party called the vecchi, who serviced Venetian networks in the Vatican and the Catholic Hapsburg dominions. The apparent conflict of the two groups was orchestrated to serve Venetian projects.”
Contarini would die in 1542, before these divsions became pronounced.
In 1536, Paul III would select Contarini to chair a commission that would develop ways to reform the church. Besides Contarini would be Caraffa, Sadoleto, Pole, Giberti, Cortese of San Giorgio Maggiore on the commission, an overwhelmingly Venetian selection. This report was titled the Consilium de Emendenda Ecclesia, and would focus on the abuses within the Catholic church.
Two excerpts from this report give us an idea of what these Venetians had in mind for the restructural reform of the Catholic church.
“We think, Holy Father, that this has to be established before all other things: as Aristotle says in his ‘Politics’, just as in any republic, so in the ecclesiastical governance of the church of Christ, this rule has to be observed before all others: that the laws have to be complied with as much as possible. For we do not think we are permitted to exempt ourselves from these laws, except for an urgent and necessary reason.”
“And since they habitually read the colloquia of Erasmus to children in the schools, in which colloquia there are many things which shape these uncultivated souls towards impiety, therefore the readings of these things and any others of the same type ought to be prohibited in literary classes.”
Thus, Aristotle’s spirit was to head this “reform of the church” and would lead into the Council of Trent campaign. Erasmus was the leading platonic humanist of his day, and his mention in the report was not by chance.
The Index Librorum Prohibitorum would form as a consequence of this report, and its lists of forbidden books, which were judged to be dangerous to the faith and morals of Roman Catholics, had a suspicious gravitation towards works by platonic humanists. Among the banned works would include those of Dante, Erasmus and all of Machiavelli’s books. This meant that the Aristotelians now held power in Rome.
By 1565, there were no fewer than seven Venetian cardinals, one of the largest if not the largest national caucus.
After 1582, the oligarchical Venetian government institutions were controlled by the giovani, and the intelligence circle titled the Ridotto Morosini would form out of this. A leading member of this circle included a Servite monk named Paolo Sarpi. The giovani were interested in forming France, Holland, Protestant Germany, and England as a grouping counter to the Diacatholicon (Spain, Italy and the papacy). Out of the Ridotto Morosini Venetian intelligence circle would come the French Enlightenment, British empiricism, and the Thirty Years’ War.
Here are a couple of quotes by Sarpi to give us an idea of his philosophy and character. He thought of man as a creature of appetites and that these appetites were insatiable, he wrote in his Pensiero, “We are always acquiring happiness, we have never acquired it and never will.”
He would also write in his Pensiero:
“There are four modes of philosophizing: the first with reason alone, the second with sense alone, the third with reason and then sense, and the fourth beginning with sense and ending with reason. The first is the worst, because from it we know what we would like to be, not what is. The third is bad because we many times distort what is into what we would like, rather than adjusting what we would like to what is. The second is true but crude, permitting us to know little and that rather of things than of their causes. The fourth is the best we can have in this miserable life.”
This was simply a re-packaged version of the epistemology of Aristotle, which formed the foundation of thought governing the giovani, and is here represented by their follower, Sarpi. Such a belief formed in its adherents skepticism of anything good and beautiful. They were instead to fill this vacuum with a contempt for man and for human reason. Sarpi for instance made no secret that he thought of man as the most imperfect of animals.
Sarpi’s intelligence circles went into action to create the preconditions for the Thirty Years war, not in Italy, but in Germany. The first step was to organize Germany into two armed camps. First came the creation of the Protestant Union of 1608 and within a year a Catholic League was formed, and the stage for a bloodbath was set.
The papal nuncio in Paris reported on March 3, 1609 to Pope Paul V on the activities of the Venetian ambassador, Antonio Foscarini, a close associate of Sarpi:
“From the first day that he came here, he has always comported himself in the same way: His most confidential dealings are with the agents of various German Protestants, with the Dutch, with the English ambassador and with two or three French Huguenots, who can be considered his house guests. His business has been to attempt to impede in any way possible any peace or truce in Flanders…. In addition to these fine projects, he has been in a big rush to set up this league of Protestants in Germany, and although he has not been able to do much in this direction, in any case I am sure that if he can contribute to this, he’ll do it.” [Federico Seneca, “La Politica Veneziana Dopo L’Interdetto,” Padova, 1957., pp. 21-22]
The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) would be instigated from this, pitting the Protestants and Catholics against each other in one of the most destructive wars in human history.
Germany would lose half of its population.
Machiavelli was at the center of the fight to destroy Venice and played a large role in helping organise the League of Cambrai. He has received an ill-repute due to his writing The Prince, which is in fact a study of Venetian strategy, something Machiavelli knew could only be defeated if one understood the nature of such an enemy. Venice’s greatest weapon was its ability to manipulate the perspective and motives of its targets. They did not engage in military warfare but rather a mental warfare which most were seriously under-equipped to defend themselves against. The Prince was thus written by Machiavelli as a study of the enemy’s mind in order to defend the humanist base in Florence. It was written specifically for Lorenzo de Medici who would become the ruler of the Florentine Republic. Lorenzo was a very powerful and enthusiastic patron of the Renaissance culture of Italy.
Let us look at the final paragraph of Machiavelli’s The Prince to gain further insight into this battle:
“This opportunity must not, therefore, be allowed to pass, so that Italy may at length find her liberator. I cannot express the love with which he would be received in all those provinces which have suffered under these foreign invasions, with what thirst for vengeance, with what steadfast faith, with what love, with what grateful tears. What doors would be closed against him? What people would refuse him obedience? What envy could oppose him? What Italian would withhold allegiance? This barbarous domination stinks in the nostrils of every one. May your illustrious house therefore assume this task with that courage and those hopes which are inspired by a just cause, so that under its banner our fatherland may be raised up, and under its auspices be verified that saying of Petrarch:
Valour against fell wrath Will take up arms; and be the combat quickly sped! For, sure, the ancient worth, That in Italians stirs the heart, is not yet dead.
– Machiavelli’s The Prince
The tragedy of wars such as the Thirty Years war was very much on the mind of Schiller. How could brother be pitted against brother with such vehement hate? How could one allow themselves to be so completely manipulated, so easily fooled into believing an absurdity, into believing that a friend was actually a foe? Most wars are the result of such methods, and therefore Schiller thought it of the utmost importance that the people, but most especially its leaders come to understand the mind of such villainy. That once recognised and exposed for what it truly is, it would lose much of its influence, and good people would no longer be manipulated by such machinations.
With this in mind we are now prepared to embark on Schiller’s Ghost Seer tale. You can think in a way that this story is like one long magic trick and it is important that you keep your mind focused on what is really occurring rather than on the flourish and distraction. Otherwise you will mistake the deed for real magic when in actuality it was all a series of slight of hand.
The Ghost Seer Book I
We are going to start off at the beginning of the story. Count O is the narrator and is recounting his experience with his friend, a prince from a German territory, who was staying in Venice at the time. Count O is visiting him on the way to his destination and they decide to remain together in Venice for a few days before the prince’s departure back to Germany.
Count O starts his narration off by giving his reasons for re-telling this story and thus proceeds to describe the character of his friend the prince.
“I shall relate an affair that will appear incredible to many, and of which I was, for the most part, an eyewitness. For those informed about a certain political matter, it will provide some welcome information – if these pages find them still among the living; and, for others who lack this key, it will perhaps be an important contribution to the history of deception and aberration of the human spirit. One will be astounded at the boldness of the ends which evil is capable of designing and pursuing. One will be amazed at the peculiarity of the means it is capable of summoning to assure itself of these ends. Pure, strict truth shall guide my pen, for when these pages enter the world, I will no longer be, and will have neither anything to lose, nor to gain on account of the report I make.”
The prince lived incognito. He kept his distance from diversions and had resisted all of the enticements of this city of temptation. Being the third prince of his house, there was hardly any prospect that he would rule one day. He was Protestant by birth albeit his convictions were not the result of inquiries; these he had never made.
“Amidst a clamorous crowd, he found his way alone; shut off in the world of his imagination, he was often a stranger in the real one. There was never one more born to be ruled than he, although he was not weak. He was, nonetheless, intrepid and reliable, as soon as he had been won over, and was equally disposed to do battle against an acknowledged prejudice, or to die for another one.”
“His ambitions had never been awakened, and so his passions had taken other directions. Content not to be dependent upon a will other than his own, he felt no temptation to rule over others: the quiet freedom of private life, and enjoyment of a lively intellectual company were the utmost of his desires. He read a good deal, but without being selective…All of the knowledge he accumulated later only increased the confusion of his conceptions, because they had not been built on firm foundation.”
One night, during an evening stroll both the prince and Count O notice that they are being followed. They know of no reason for this, and sit at a bench hoping it is possibly just a mistaken identity. The Armenian following them, sits at an adjacent bench and just as the prince gets up and exclaims to the Count that they should be leaving since they need to arrive at their destination by 9 pm, the Armenian responds “He died at 9 o’clock.”
The prince and Count are stricken by this ominous person and leave for their hotel immediately. A week passes by and the prince receives a letter, as he is strolling through the city, confirming that his cousin, who is first in line for the crown, did in fact die last thursday evening….at 9 o’clock! At this moment, the Armenian emerges from the crowd and tells the prince that he urgently needs to meet with the deputies from the senate. Once the prince returns from this mysterious meeting, whom the Count did not accompany him to, the prince says to the Count:
“Count,” the prince said in the words of Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and on earth than we dream of in our philosophies.”
“Most gracious Prince,” Count O replied, “you seem to forget that you go to bed the richer of a great hope.” (The deceased had been crown prince, the only son of the governing ***, who was old and sick, now without hope that his son would succeed him. An uncle of our Prince also without progeny or prospects of obtaining any, was all that stood between the prince and the throne…)
“Do not remind me,” said the prince. “And even if a crown were now mine to be won, I should now have more to do than think about this trivial matter…if it were really that this Armenian did not merely guess that…”
“How is that possible?” Count O interrupted.
The prince: “I would exchange all my princely hopes with you for a monk’s cowl.”
The prince already at this early stage has developed an obsession with how the Armenian’s mysterious prediction came true and has referred to his own possible ascension to the throne as a trivial matter!
It is interesting that Schiller has the prince use a Hamlet reference. What was the ultimate tragedy of Hamlet? Hamlet became obsessed with a ghost, he put the importance of this phantom above everything else. Hamlet did not think of his role as a better king that was needed to end the mayhem and ensure the security of Denmark.
When Hamlet discovered that his uncle was guilty of the murder of his father, he continues inaction. By the end of the play Hamlet has never made any real decision or action in order to determine his own fate, let alone the people of Denmark. He lived more in his head than in reality. He does end with killing his uncle, but only after everything is lost. After all possible avenues of action are already destroyed and his own death certain, only then does he finally kill his uncle…but there is no one left to govern and the people of Denmark are lost.
The prince very evidently does not wish this responsibility to rule. He has never prepared himself for this role, thinking it would never be his. And he confesses that he would rather become a monk, an isolated figure with no heavy expectation, than a king.
The next evening, the prince is playing cards with a group of people, he ends up getting into an argument with a Venetian and insults him. The commotion is so loud, that the Count enters the room and yells “Prince!”. Recall that nobody knew of the prince’s identity up until this point. As soon as the Count revealed his identity, half of the room went empty and the remaining were all attempting to offer the prince help in the situation he got himself into. They warned him that this Venetian would surely have him killed tonight and started to compete with one another as to who would be chosen to help the prince. The prince and the Count end up leaving the place on their own and decide to head straight back for their hotel. Along their way, they are ushered forcefully into a gondola by a group of people and are taken to a dark building, led up a winding staircase where they enter a room…
“At the end, we stepped into a room where the blindfolds were taken from our eyes. We found ourselves in a circle of venerable old men, all clothed in black, the entire room hung with black tapestries and dimly lit, deathly stillness in the entire gathering, which made a horrible impression. One of the venerables, presumably the Supreme State Inquisitor, approached and asked the prince in a solemn tone, as the Venetian was being led forward, “Do you recognize this man here as the same who insulted you in the coffee house?”
“Yes,” answered the prince.
Thereupon the Inquisitor turned to the prisoner. “Is this the person you intended to have killed this evening?”
“Yes,” replied the prisoner.
All at once the circle opened, and with horror we saw the head of the Venetian parted from his torso. “Is this sufficient satisfaction for you?” the State Inquisitor inquired. But the prince lay unconscious in the arms of his attendants.
“Go now,” commanded the Inquisitor in a horrible voice, and turning to me, said, “and in the future, do not be so precipitous in your judgement of justice in Venice.”
The prince, would have from this point on, protection bestowed on him by the highest echelons in Venice. His identity was known and they wanted him kept in their safe keeping.
At this point it seems all of Venice is aware of the prince’s identity and he quickly gains an entourage. One evening his entourage follows him into a hotel for dinner. During the dinner the prince gushes over the mysterious Armenian and his eerie foretelling of the death of his cousin on its exact hour. The conversation quickly becomes focused on whether the supernatural does indeed exist. At this point, a Sicilian magician in their company offers his “skills” in settling the matter.
“The prince’s curiosity was already piqued to the highest pitch. To be in contact with the world of spirits had previously been his most ardent desire, and, after that initial appearance of the Armenian, all of the ideas began to whirl in him once more, the which his more mature reason has shunned for so long.
“You have here before you,” the prince went on, “one who is burning with impatience to bring this important matter to a conviction. I would embrace him who could dispel my doubts and draw the shades from my eyes as my benefactor…”
“What do you demand of me?” asked the magician.
the prince: “For now, just an example of your art. Let me see an apparition.”
the magician: “What purpose would that serve?”
the prince: “Then, from closer acquaintance with me, you may judge whether I am worthy of higher instruction.”
It is interesting to note here, that the prince has a more ready tendency to accept that he has a special selection in the sacred/secret sciences in the supernatural rather than his selection as a king, a future leader of a people. He thinks he can be one of the few who can be taught in the art of the “sacred sciences”, that he possesses the rare qualities for “initiation”.
The word mysticism is derived from Greek, and its original meaning is “to conceal”. Its derivative is mystikos, meaning “an initiate”. In the Hellenistic world, the word mystical referred to “secret” religious rituals. A “mystikos” was, therefore, an initiate of a mystery religion. The word mystery has its root from mystikos, and refers to revealing truths that surpass the powers of natural reason, in other words, the root of the word mystery can be understood as a truth that transcends the created intellect.
Already it is evident that the prince does not think he can come to understand the highest mysteries as a discovery through reason, but rather he thinks these mysteries will unfold themselves to him if he is chosen to be initiated, if he is allowed entry into this enchanted, mystical realm.
A seance is organised for that night. The prince has selected to conjure up a friend of his who was killed in battle. The magician needs several hours to prepare and in the meantime about half the entourage remains in anticipation, among these are a British man and a Russian. Finally, it is time for the conjuring. They enter a darkly lit room, the magician says his incantations and suddenly an image of what seems to be a spirit appears in the background. However, as soon as this apparition appears, a second apparition seemingly of the same ghost also appears and is much closer to the spectators and much more real! The prince himself is amazed at the likeness of this ghost to his long past-away friend. The magician appears frightful and turns pale at the appearance of this second apparition and falls to his knees. The Russian in their company then growls at the magician and says “You shall never conjure spirits again!”. The magician looks into the face of the Russian and seems to recognise him, he screams in horror and faints.
Immediately following this scene, guards enter and arrest the magician. The Russian is seen speaking to them and arranges for no one else in their party to be arrested. At this point it is revealed, that the Russian was in fact the Armenian in disguise. Amongst all the clamour, the Armenian is nowhere to be found, the prince wants to go searching for him and remarks:
“A higher power is pursuing me. Omniscience hovers over me. An invisible being whom I cannot escape watches my every step. I must find the Armenian, and he will shed light on this.”
And a few paragraphs later…
“Not at all,” said the prince. “This person is everything he wants to be, and everything the moment dictates he ought to be. No mortal has yet learned what he actually is. Did you see how the Sicilian crumpled when he screamed the words into his ear, ‘You shall never summon spirits again!’? There is more behind it. No one can convince me that someone can be so terrified of something human.”
Notice how the prince is convinced that someone or something with so much evident power cannot possibly be human. Anything so awesomely mysterious and powerful must be from the supernatural realm.
The next day the prince, the Count and the British man decide to see the magician in his prison cell in an attempt to try to get some answers from him.
The prince: “And to what end did you design all of this?”
The Sicilian (magician): “In order to make you reflective – in order to prepare an emotional condition in you that would make you the more receptive for the wonders that I had in store for you.…the adventure with the Armenian permitted me to hope that you would already be inclined to dismiss natural explanations, and to look for traces of higher sources of the extraordinary.”
“Indeed,” remarked the prince in a manner at once chagrined and amazed…”I had not expected that.”
The prince is now very much embarrassed to having taken so seriously something that has so clearly been proven a fraud. However, observe that the magician never answered a purpose to the design…
The prince then questions the magician as to why he was so horrified upon recognising the face of the Armenian during the seance, where did he know him from? The magician then goes on to recount a story of his first encounter with the Armenian. It started with the tragedy of a well off family who’s first son had gone missing. The family had searched in vain for years and a body was never recovered. The first son was to have been married to the daughter of another family, they were very much in love and both families had been holding off her marriage to anyone else hoping for his return. It is upon this scene that the magician is hired into their company:
“…his family might well require one such as I in this very serious matter, indeed, in order to possibly obtain some insight by means of my secret sciences, whereas all natural devices had been exhaustively and fruitlessly attempted.”
…By using the mystical books in the very considerable library of the old marchese, I was soon able to speak to him in his own language, and to bring my system of the invisible world into agreement with his own opinions. In a short while, he believed everything I wanted him to believe, and would have sworn with as much confidence upon the copulation of philosophers with salamanders and sylphs as upon a book of the Bible. As he was highly religious, and his capacity for faith had been highly developed in this school, my own stories found access all the easier, so that in the end I had so bound and knitted him up with mysticisms, that he would credit nothing natural any longer. In short, I was the revered apostle of the house.”
…”Mistrust in the matter itself, doubt in my arts, was the only obstacle I did not have to struggle with.”
It is accepted by the family that a seance should occur in an attempt to speak to the first son’s phantom, if he is in fact dead.
“You will note,” said the Sicilian, “that I departed from the usual conjectures here, [in reference to the séance] there seemed nothing more dangerous to me than a certain approximation to the natural.”
“I believe this to have been correctly judged,” said the prince, turning toward us. “In a succession of extraordinary phenomena, it seems to me, that it is precisely the more probable that would be disruptive. The ease of understanding a discovery would only debase the means applied to obtain it; the ease of inventing it would even give rise to suspicion; for, why take the trouble with a spirit if one intends to learn no more from him than what could have been brought forth without him, with the aid merely of common sense? But the surprising novelty and the difficulty of discovery is here at once the guarantor of the miracle by which it is obtained – for, who would cast doubt on the supernatural in a phenomenon, if that which is achieved cannot be achieved by natural forces?”
In other words, people are not suspicious of supernatural explanations because it is beyond understanding, it is beyond reason. Therefore if they can be convinced that they saw something partaking in the mystical, that is all the conviction they need. They only need be convinced by their senses, the mind plays no role in this domain since it is not something that can be rationalised.
As soon as the illusion or effect appears more natural than supernatural, our mind is engaged and takes over. Therefore, if you were a fraudster like the magician, nothing would be more dangerous than to allow someone’s mind to turn on. The prince ironically fully agrees with this.
The story of the magician ends with a wedding ceremony of the second son with the daughter that was destined to be betrothed to the first son. Since the family has had closure from the seance and ‘confirmation’ that their first son is truly gone, they decide to move on. At the wedding, the magician sees for the first time the Armenian, dressed as a Franciscan monk, as he shouts out in the middle of the king’s speech “May I ask why you have not invited your first son to this wedding?”. The king responds that he is gone where one remains for eternity. The Armenian responds “Maybe he only fears to show himself in such company. Let him hear the last voice he ever heard. Ask your son Lorenzo to call for him.” There is confusion amongst the wedding party, the king chooses to be unaffected and raises his glass and gives a toast to the memory of his first son. Everyone is seen to drink out of their glass except Lorenzo (the second son). The king beckons him on and Lorenzo accepts the glass of wine offered to him from the Armenian, he drinks hesitantly as he says “to my beloved brother”. At this point the phantom of the first son appears and says “That is the voice of my murderer.” Upon this Lorenzo is seen in the throes of death and starts to convulse violently. The magician claims to have no further details of the event because at this point he had fainted. He adds that the prince did shortly after die and the only ones to attend him, his father and the priest died within a few weeks after. In addition, there was a skeleton found hidden amongst foliage on the castle grounds, and the second son for the seance had a ring of his brother in his possession that he offered for the fake conjuring of his brother. All these signs seemed to point to Lorenzo being the killer of his brother and suspicion as to what role the magician played in the affair.
And so the story of the magician ends.
The prince and the count leave with more questions than answers as to the identity and nature of the Armenian.
After the magician’s answers, the prince feels disgusted, that this pure world of the sacred sciences, of the mystical world beyond our own has been sullied by such a good for nothing fraudster. He is also deeply embarrassed that he fell so hard for the whole affair. This disgust seems at first to have lifted the prince out of his dream state and awakens him to explain mechanically how every “trick” could have been done without magic up to this point. That it was all simply a series of cons.
What seems to be a moment of clarity turns out to be a cold detached logic to the whole series of very odd events. And it all falls apart when the intention, the purpose of the whole intricate affair remains hidden. The prince even goes so far as to acknowledge that the Armenian has an important plan that the prince is either a target of or a means to an end but then throws this possibility quickly away.
“what do all the miracles prove, if I can prove that just one of them is a fraud?
…Once we concede, that the Armenian has an important plan, one in which I am either the target, or in which I am to be used as a means – and, must we not concede this, whatever judgement we make of him as a person? – then nothing is unnatural, nothing forced, which leads him to his goal over the shortest possible path. What shorter path to assure oneself of a person than the credentials of a miracle worker? Who would resist a man before whom the spirits themselves kneel? But, I grant you that my conjecture is fabricated; I admit I am not satisfied with it myself. I do not even insist upon its veracity, because I do not think it worth the trouble to make use of a fabricated and circumspect scheme, where mere accident suffices.
“What?” Count O interrupted. “It was supposedly a mere accident that…”
“Scarcely anything more! The Armenian knew what danger my cousin was in. He met us on St. Mark’s Square. The opportunity invited him to dare a prophecy which, if it failed to hit its mark, was merely a lost word or two – but, if it struck true, might have the most important consequences. Success crowned the attempt – and only then might he have considered using the gifts of chance for an interconnected plan. – Time will clarify this secret, or perhaps not but believe me, friend” as he lay his hand on mine and assumed a very serious demeanour, “a person, before whom higher forces kneel, will have no need of charlatanry, or he will despise it.”
The prince never fathomed or brought into consideration that this whole series of events could have been orchestrated by a true villainy within Venice that was focused on the prince for a very exact purpose. The purpose was never suspected by the prince for why would anyone go through the trouble of weaving such a series of very odd and intricate events just to toy with the prince’s mind? Such a thing was really unfathomable and thus it was never understood and an evil motive was never suspected. It always partook more in the illusion of something supernatural than of something with a human intention.
As a result, now the prince’s belief in the eternal, in the laws ordering the universe have been shattered as a result of his belief in miracles being shattered. Due to his inability to explain mechanically, like he did with the other cons, how the Armenian was able to make his first chilling prediction, the prince concludes that it can all be explained rather by the mere random collisions of chance. The prince has given up on understanding what has been occurring around him, and thus at this point, he surrenders himself almost completely to his fate being chosen for him by what he mistakenly identifies as chance, but in fact is a villainy that has remained hidden from him.
The prince has simply replaced his belief in miracles and relegated them to random chance. A rather artificial substitute for the same effect.
The prince has gained confidence by crediting himself with identifying the fraud. However, it is a fraud that chose to reveal itself to him.
Thus ended a conversation, which I have set down here in its entirety, because it demonstrates the difficulties to be surmounted with the prince…that he fell blindly and unreflecting into the snare laid for him by a shocking deviltry. Not everyone…perhaps looking down upon his weaknesses in mockery, and in the proud darkness of his own, untested reason, thinking himself justified in breaking the staff of damnation over him, I say that not everyone, I fear, would have withstood even this first test in such a manly fashion. If now, even after this fortunate preparation, you see him fall nonetheless…you will ridicule his folly less than you will be astounded at the immensity of the villainy that slew such well-defended reason.
…Forgive me the tears that fall, involuntarily, to the memory of my most dear friend – I write this down as a tribute to justice: he was a noble person, and would certainly have become an ornament to the throne by which he let himself be so deluded as to want to ascend it in crime.
Eugenio Alberi (ed.), “Le Relazioni degli ambasciatori veneti al Senato durante il secolo decimosesto” (Firenze, 1853).