There was once a powerful magician who lived in a garret in the Rue Bouffetard. He lived there in the guise of a little old clerk, tidy and punctual, and worked in a branch of the Avaganais Bank on the Avenue des Gibelins. With the wave of a magic toothpick he could have transmuted all the tiles of the roof into bars of gold. But that would have been immoral, for he believed that work ennobles man. And - to some extent - even woman, he would add.
When his Aunt Ursula, an old shrew who had just been ruined by the collapse of the Serbian-Bulgarian stocks, came to live with him and demanded that he take care of her, he could have transformed her at will into a pretty young princess, or into a swan harnessed to his magic chariot, or into a soft-boiled egg, or into a ladybug or into a bus. But that would have broken with good family tradition, the backbone of society and morality. So he slept on a straw mat and would get up at six o'clock to buy Aunt Ursula her rolls and prepare her coffee; after which, he listened patiently to the daily broadside of complaints: that the coffee tasted of soap, that there was a cockroach baked into one of the rolls, that he was an unworthy nephew and would be disinherited. "Disinherited of what?" you might well wonder. But he let her talk on, knowing that if he wanted to... But Aunt Ursula must never suspect that he was a powerful magician. That might give birth to thoughts of lucre and close the gates of Paradise to her forever.
After that, the great magician would go down his six flights, sometimes almost breaking his neck on the murderously slippery stairs. However, he would pick himself up with a faint smile, thinking that if he wished he could turn himself into a swallow and take wing through the skylight. But the neighbours might see, and so wondrous a feat would shake the very foundation of their naive but wholesome faith.
When he reached the street, he would brush the dust off his alpaca jacket at the same time taking care not to pronounce those words which would have instantly turned it into a brocade vestment. Such an act would have planted a sinister doubt in the hearts of the people passing and shaken their innocent belief in the immutability of the laws of nature.
He had his breakfast at the counter in a cafe, taking only some ersatz coffee and a bit of stale bread. Ah, if he wanted to...but in order to stop himself from making use of his supernatural powers, he would swallow five cognacs in rapid succession. The alcohol, dulling the edge of his magic powers, brought him round to a salutary humility and to the feeling that all men, including himself, were brothers. If the cashier repulsed him when he tried to kiss her, pretending it was because of his dirty beard, he would tell himself that she had no heart and understood nothing of the spirit of the gospels. At a quarter to eight, he was in his office, his sleeve protectors on, a pen behind his ear, and a newspaper spread before him. With only a slight effort of concentration he could have known straight off the present, past and future of the entire world, but he restrained himself from using this gift. He made himself read the paper so as not to lose touch with the common language; it allowed him to communicate over an aperitif with his equals - in appearance - and guide them in the right direction. At eight o'clock the paper scratching began, and if he made a mistake now and then, it was in order to justify the reprimands of his superiors, who otherwise would be guilty of the serious sin of having made a false accusation. And so, all day long the great magician, in the guise of an average employee, carried on his task as humanity's guide.
Poor Aunt Ursula! Whenever he returned at noon having forgotten to buy some parsley, that dear lady, instead of cracking the basin over his head, would certainly have behaved differently had she known who her nephew really was. But then she would never have had the opportunity of discovering to what extent anger is a momentary madness.
If he had wanted to!...Instead of dying in a hospital of an unknown disease in a barely Christian fashion, leaving no more trace on earth than a moth-eaten coat in the wardrobe, an old toothbrush, and mocking memories in the ungrateful hearts of his colleagues, he could have been a pasha, an alchemist, a wizard, a nightingale, or a cedar of Lebanon. But that would have been contrary to the secret designs of Providence. No one made a speech over his grave. No one suspected who he was. And who knows - perhaps not even himself.
Still, he was a most powerful magician.
RENE DAUMAL (1908 - 1944)
tr. Charles Warner.
Evergreen Review Vol.4 No 13
"What is 'Pataphysics?"